The Oak Tree at the Entrance to Blackwater Pond – Mary Oliver
on my way to the pond
I pass the lightening-felled
hundred-fingered, black oak
which, summers ago.
swam forward when the storm
laid one lean yellow wand against it, smoking it open
to its rosy heart.
It dropped down
in a veil of rain,
in a cloud of sap and fire,
and became what it has been ever since –
a black boat
in the tossing leaves of summer,
like the coffin of Osiris
upon the cloudy Nile.
But, listen, I’m tired of that brazen promise:
death and resurrection.
I’m tired of hearing how the nitrogens will return
to the earth again,
through the hinterland of patience –
how the mushrooms and the yeasts
will arrive in the wind –
how they’ll anchor the pearls of their bodies and begin
to gnaw through the darkness,
like wolves at bones –
what I loved, I mean, was that tree-
tree of the moment – tree of my own sad, mortal heart-
and I don’t want to sing anymore of the way
Osiris came home at last, on a clean
and powerful ship, over
the dangerous sea, as a tall
and beautiful stranger.
As I sit here writing this month’s blog post, I am nervously waiting to hear from the veterinary hospital. This morning my beloved dog Cyrus collapsed as he tried to get up. He had been sick for a couple of days, but my visit with the vet yesterday didn’t prepare me for this eventuality. He was down and no amount of cajoling or leash-rattling or treat-promising was enough to get him to even lift his head; his heavily-lidded eyes were devoid of the energetic spark that is the hallmark of Cy’s personality. I bundled him into the backseat of my car and sped off to the emergency clinic, driving through tears. After thirteen years of the best health any dog could hope to have, it felt like I was suddenly on the verge of having to say goodbye.
My friend Bonnie, a Methodist pastor, met me at the clinic. The nurse took Cyrus, once more awake and on his feet, back to be examined while Bonnie and I sat on blue plastic chairs, waiting to hear what my dog’s fate would be. I recounted how Cyrus came to be a part of my life – as a junior in high school, just after my parents told me they were separating and my dad moved out, my mom and I went to the SPCA and fell in love with him. Cyrus hadn’t had the best treatment in the first year of his life and his behavior reflected it. He was a mess. I was a mess. We grew attached to each other in our messiness. And over the years, we both learned to trust and love as we grew and healed.
Tears were rolling down my cheeks as I recounted this story; they are rolling down my cheeks now. I told her that, if Cyrus were to die today, I would be at peace with it. And I meant it. He’s lived a wonderful life and just two days ago was enjoying his favorite activities – leading me in an all out sprint as we ended our run and lying stretched out on the deck, soaking in the sun. I would be at peace if he were to die today. But, I said, I would also be deeply sad.
It was always my intent to write on grief this month, I just hadn’t expected it to be so close to the heart of it when I finally put pen to paper. On the radio last Wednesday I heard a report about a high school football team in a small town in New York – they were cancelling the remainder of their season after one of their players suffered a traumatic head injury during a game and died three days later. The students themselves were in favor of cancelling the remaining months of play. They wanted time to heal in private. But the reporter said there were those outside of the community who were angered at the decision; one online comment read, “The lesson to the team should have been to face a challenge head on instead of giving up. We’ve become a culture of coddlers.”
My stomach flipped when I heard those words. I was sickened by the thought that someone could equate healthy grieving with giving up. Because that’s what this team was doing – they were engaging in healthy grieving. In a world that often tells us we should shrug it off and get back to work, they were taking the time to remember and to mourn and to acknowledge that life isn’t the same as it was two weeks ago, before their friend died. When did we get to the point of thinking that grief should be over when the funeral is finished and that to take any more time is to ‘give up’?
If you think that I’m making this generalization based on a single news report, I’m not. Too many of my congregants have lost spouses or children or grandchildren, and the witness that they bear is that people expect them to get over their sorrow in short order. They are expected to mourn for a proscribed period of time and then to be, quite simply, better. Their friends are perplexed when they still grow teary many months or even years later; these friends don’t understand why the heavy weight of painful memory is still such a visible burden so long after the burial. They offer platitudes like, “it’ll get better,” or “you’ll meet someone new,” or “everything will be fine.” They offer platitudes that exasperate and anger the ones who are grieving, leaving them utterly alone in their sorrow.
When did we become so uncomfortable with grief? Even when the grief is small, we desperately desire to soothe it away. Yesterday, when I shared with some in my community what was happening with Cyrus, they sought to assure me that he would be fine, that the vet would take care of him, that he wouldn’t die right now. I didn’t want those comforting words, and I knew that they might not be true. What I wanted was for them to stand with me and simply acknowledge that the point is not whether he dies or not; the point is that facing the loss of my beloved furry friend is deeply and heart-wrenchingly sad.
Sitting in those blue chairs, waiting – just waiting – Bonnie interrupted the silence by paraphrasing a poem by Mary Oliver. “Don’t talk to me about resurrection,” she said, “the thing that I love, what I love, is dead.” Yes. These words ring true. And I wonder where they have been all this time. I don’t recall ever talking in seminary about the importance of those three days that Jesus spent in the tomb, descending into death. In my own ministry, I am all too guilty of speeding right past those entombed days to the resurrection. And perhaps I have been guilty, too, of offering my own theologically-grounded platitudes to those in mourning – that the hope of the resurrection is that, even if they never get over the loss of their loved one, there will be a new kind of life, an abundant life again. I believe this to be true, and I hold onto this hope for each grieving person with whom I meet, but perhaps I’ve rushed in with these words too soon. Because right now, in my own small grief, I need to be in this grave – if Cyrus dies, a part of my heart will die too. And though I trust in the resurrection promise, the promise that there will be new and abundant life for me past this death, right now I need my three days of entombment. Right now, I need my three days of descending to the dead. Right now, I need to honor that this is sad, and it is right that it is sad, and that it is right that I grieve because I love Cyrus. I grew up with him, and my life will be different after him. It is right that I grieve because he is important enough to have left a mark on me.
I don’t know what they will tell me when the phone rings. I don’t know right now if the goodbye that I said this morning will be final or just one of many more to come. What I do know is that I will never again skip over Christ’s days in the tomb when I sit with the grief-stricken. For those days are holy, too.
“The Oaktree at the Entrance to Blackwater Pond” is from the collection: Blue Iris: Poems and Essays, by Mary Oliver; Beacon Press, 2004.
Jennifer Barchi is serving as the Solo Pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD, where she lives with her dog Cyrus.