Friday, July 15, 2016
Looking for a Lost Story
The following essay was written while attending Beyond Walls at Kenyon College. It was on the prompt "looking for a lost story" in the lyric writing group.
Prompt: Looking for a lost story
As the family genealogist, I wander cemeteries looking for ancestors whose names I know. They are comforting places, and also troubling ones. The peace of connection laid alongside the sadness of lost stories.
I did the awful thing the other day of reading the profile of my former parish as they search for my replacement. Of course, I was looking for myself, hoping, I guess, for a nice obituary.
“The Very Rev. Michael W. Hopkins became rector of Two Saints in 2004 and resigned for health reasons in 2014.”
I rifled through the pages looking for more that I did not find. The pain again of a lost story, in which meaning was made and unmade and remade, woven and torn apart and re-woven. Gone.
Death. There are many kinds. My mother called this morning to say my Uncle Donnie had died. Two of her three brothers gone in the space of a year. She had done as much to raise them as her mother had. There was a hollowness, a lostness, a death, in her voice.
Memory is a tricky thing. It loses more than it keeps. There is a story I do not know of an uncle returning home from the navy in Vietnam. He brought me a sailor suit. I love the photograph of the two of us in identical uniforms. I was four years old. I smile when I see the photograph but weep for the lack of a story.
We all lose so much. Stories abruptly end and in our pain we do not savor them, much less remember them. It is as if death frightens us so much that it seems better if the story is lost. A lost story should mean lost pain. But it does not. The need to forget is a cruel trick we play on ourselves, and it makes God weep.
Some nights when I cannot fall asleep I course through the animals we have lost: Prosper, my first cat; Serge our first cat together; Cuthbert our first dog and loyal friend; and Festus, our greyhound we lost a little over two years ago. When I first found myself doing this, I tried to stop it. I didn’t think prolonged mourning would do me any good. Yet I have not stopped, so on occasion I remember, I smile, I grieve. I tell myself stories, stories that are not lost.
Last year I started planting flowers around a monument in one of the cemeteries of my hometown. Growing up, my grandmother tended to this year after year. After her death in 2004, my sister tried to keep it up for a couple years but she couldn’t see the point. When I moved back near to home it seemed like something I should do, although I myself was not sure what the point was. Fewer and fewer people go up to that cemetery that sits on a little rise above the local school—Highland, it is called. My grandmother was the last of our relatives buried there, in the plot of my great-grandmother’s family, the Henderson’s. I plant the geraniums and try to check on them once a week. Somehow it seems like something that ought to be done, a kind of protest against the losing of story. Such a protest, I think, is like drying God’s tears.
As a priest I have watched death happen many times. Most times, I would say, it is a slipping away, but once and awhile I have watched someone “come alive” quite intensely, usually without words, but as if in a final struggle, and then, always, a look of peace, even happiness, the gone. I am not sure what the brief alertness means except as a last grasp of story and the profound desire, “Remember me.” Remember my story.