Monday, April 14, 2014

Slumber Parties in the Shadow of Death: A Holy Week Meditation

In the spring after my father’s death, on the night before Easter, my then eight-year-old son announced that he wanted to invite his sister over for a slumber party. It would involve bringing her stuffed lion-bear across the hall. And her pillow. As far as slumber parties go it was a low-stress affair.

In fact he’d already invited her. The two were anxiously awaiting my blessing. My daughter—a twirly five-year-old—clung to my leg saying, “Can we, Daddy? Can we? Can we?” Her brother was perched on his toes, hands clasped over his belly and eyebrows raised. “It’s Easter Eve! It’s a special occasion!”

I found myself looking down at my children with an ache. They weren’t thinking about it, but it was hard for me to think of anything else. Hard not to see in this eager moment the shadow of October; hard not to hear that same request, born then from the need for comfort in the dark.

It came, that last time, while I was packing for an unexpected flight. I’d originally been scheduled to travel later in the week—a visit to see my father, who’d been diagnosed with liver cancer—but my sister’s urgent phone call inspired a last minute change of plans.

“I told him you were coming on Thursday,” she said. “I asked if he could hold out that long. His mouth said yes, but his eyes…I don’t think he’ll make it.”

As I packed my carry-on bag my son came in with his Perry the Platypus baseball cap. I looked at the yellow bill, at the two giant cartoon eyes furrowed with determination. My son knew that his grandfather had a thing for interesting hats. “Take this along,” he said. “Fafa will like it.”

I nodded and stuffed it in the bag. I imagined sitting by my father’s sick bed with that absurd hat perched on my head, my father looking up and smiling weakly.

“Can Sissy sleep in my bed tonight?” my son asked. “Like when we’re on vacation?” In hotel rooms they always shared a bed.

I looked down at him, his face more earnest than I was used to. “Sure,” I said.

As I put them to bed I reminded them I’d be gone before they woke. I leaned over and kissed their foreheads in turn.

“Tell Bebe and Fafa we love them,” my son muttered as he drifted towards sleep.

“I will.”

They snuggled into each other. I could see in their faces the weight of it, the awareness of this enormous and inevitable thing. They’d lost their beloved Gunkle just a few months earlier. They knew what was coming.

The call came half an hour later. After I hung up the phone I went down the hall to look into my son’s room. The kids were fast asleep, nestled in against each other. I thought of waking them, giving them the news before I left, but my wife said to let them sleep. I nodded and turned away. But I held that picture in my head, the image of those little-boy arms enfolding his even smaller sister. Those two faces, so alike in the darkness, at peace in the restless hollows of the night.

A few hours later I was on a plane. The trip had changed from a last chance to say goodbye into something full of anguish and regret, and the thing that made me cry despite myself was when I reached into my bag for a book to read and closed my hand, instead, on the bill of a Perry the Platypus hat.

I pressed my forehead into the cold, round airplane window, and cursed my father for dying a day too soon.

Six months later my kids were asking again to have a slumber party, but this time with an air of celebration. Tomorrow we’d hear stories of an empty tomb, and search the spring grass for brightly colored eggs. Tomorrow the weather forecast promised sunny skies, not the cold, gray day which greeted me off the plane six months ago.

But yesterday we sat in silence as the bell tolled three times, as the altar went dark, as the Good Friday service reminded us of crucifixion. Strange, I thought, that these slumber parties should fall so close to the shadow of death, that one began with death’s anticipation, the other with anticipation of its transcendence.

I wondered if the last six months were my own long wait for resurrection, book-ended by two children eager for a slumber party. I recalled the way they looked that night, when I stood drinking in their sleeping faces, trying to drink their peace. I looked down at them now, bouncing on their toes as they waited for my blessings on their slumber party. And I found myself trembling at the edge of the numinous.

There was something here, if only I could tease its meaning from the twitchy enthusiasm of a boy and girl on Easter Eve.

In my own childhood it was my father who presided over our family’s Easter egg hunts. It wasn’t the usual random search through the yard but a structured thing with clues. When my sister and I woke in the morning there’d be a single hand-painted egg in plain sight, with a written clue beside it that would lead us to the next hard-boiled egg. Each clue was clever, a riddle or a puzzle that would guide us from one egg to the next, until at last we reached our Easter baskets full of sweets.

What I savor now is not that treasure at the end, but the memory of the hunt, and the evidence of time and imagination invested for our sakes.

Evidence of love. My father was a quiet introvert who rarely expressed his feelings in words. His personality suited his Norwegian heritage, even to the end: Although I always knew how he felt about me—the pride and affection—it took his best friend’s words at the funeral to give those feelings voice.

I wondered if he’d have said them himself, there at the end, if I’d come in time. Instead, they came through a third party, a father’s words of love for his grieving son, spoken in a eulogy by a friend.

Love second-hand.

But on Easter mornings as a child, the egg hunt served as a more vivid testament, forged in labor and creativity, shining in my father’s quiet delight as he watched us plunge from clue to clue.

If I have an experience of divine love in a world of suffering and inevitable death, it’s like that. Second-hand assurances, while in the puzzling course of my life some brightly-colored moment draws my eye to something more: a world littered with clues.

“Can we, Daddy? Can we? Can we?”

“It’s Easter Eve! It’s a special occasion!”

I saw it written in their expressions, in their excited voices, in the very idea that snuggling with a sibling through the night is both a comfort against loss and a way to celebrate renewal: clues for how to live in a world of death.

And as I nodded silently, not trusting my voice, maybe my children wondered at the tremble in my hands or the way the hall light shone in my eyes. But if so they didn’t wonder long. They were too excited about their slumber party, a night together to ring in Easter’s hallowing.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, a very moving story and reflection. These kind of experiences are where faith sheds all the cerebral doctrine and walks alone into the depths.