..................A little over a week ago, a friend of mine received heartbreaking news. His mother - a deeply beloved single parent whose entire life was devoted to her children - had passed away. His grief was instant, total, and deeper than any wound I can even imagine. I was so proud of our family - our Theatre family, here at school - as we came together around him. By the time the wake arrived, two vans had been borrowed from the school by our professors to take students to support our friend. We had cooked meals and snacks, created a scrapbook, gathered donations for his mother's favorite charity. When it was time to go, in addition to the vans most of the juniors and seniors car pooled in their own vehicles, including myself. Our upper classes here are very small - maybe 20 people in all, and our friend was part of the first Theatre BA Class ever, so all of us in the upper years were there with him. At the funeral the next morning, three pews were filled with students, faculty, and staff . . . none of whom knew what to say or do, only that our brother needed us.
As I type, I can feel the weight of those two days' sadness settle on me again. A few instants in particular are crystalized in my mind, tiny sharp, cold, vivid, pressed forever in my memory like stones settled at the bottom of a riverbed. One was at the very end of the service, as the casket was being carried out. The pallbearers stopped in the center of the aisle for a final prayer, and the head of the casket was directly in front of me where I sat on the end. As the priest began to speak - the words are gone, but the tone is still there, echoing - my friend reached his left hand out and lay it on his mother's casket to say goodbye. His right hand he reached out behind him, for comfort or strength or something else I can't put a name to. His reaching fingers found my open hand, and I held on as tightly as I could. I can still feel the heat from his palm, radiating, intense, as though he were on fire. I remember thinking how funny it is that grief and sadness are thought of as greys: as rain and clouds and subduded voices, muted tones and dark skies. This grief, the grief of a youngman on the edge of the "real world" without his mother's hand, was fire. It was red and it was burning and it seared me right down to the middle of the middle of the center of myself. I tried to say a prayer but even my thoughts were tongue tied, so I gave over to God all the things I was feeling, trusting that he understood the language of my heart.
The second moment that I'll carry with me was midway through the service. I was sitting at the end of a row of mostly seniors, next to a good friend of mine who is graduating soon. We had just gone and received communion, which neccesitated passing by the grieving family. I'd been doing my best not to cry (The service wasn't about me. I am stubborn. Etc. etc etc.) until then, but passing by the family, especially our friend, was too much for dry eyes. As I knelt down to pray, two fat, round tears like liquid marbles rolled down my face. Before the second one had passed my cheekbone and curved its way down my chin, the friend who was sitting to my right had his hand on my back. Without ever looking over at me or saying a word, he just pressed his palm against my shoulderblade, steadying my heart and resolve in one motion. I realized how lucky I was to have that hand on my back - how lucky we all were to have hearts to share in this grief together, as we had shared in so many other losses, as well as triumphs and joy.
You know when people talk about realizing everything they've ever known is a lie?
All my life I was taught to mistrust people, to fear them even. To be less an island and more an iceberg - not only alone and indepedent, but with most of myself totally hidden and perfectly cold. As I've left that bubble and entered this world, I am finding the core of me isn't an iceberg at all. It is warm, and it's soft, and it is human and flawed and so breakable. Sometimes I love that, but often it makes me afraid. It's scary to have a piece of myself chipped off and put in someone's pocket - some secret or memory or thought that I hadn't decided the whole world should see. It makes me pullback to feel the invisible threads of true friendship tangle around me. Sometimes it hurts, you know, being part of the family - loving other people, sharing their lives. Not only do you risk your own hopes but suddenly your heart rides with theirs, too tugged along by those invisible strings. In the second my friend's palm rested against my back, I felt cracks radiate along every fault line in the frozen island I was taught to become. And I realized the pay off for the worry, the vulnerablity, the trusting, is simple - I won't melt into the ocean alone.
There will always be at least one hand pressed against me, keeping me afloat.