|Memorial Day, 1998|
This is a privileged lament, when others in this age of COVID-19 are crying, literally and metaphorically, "I can't breathe."
The news today brings into my mind a conversation I had six mornings ago, on Memorial Day, with my college friend Kathy.
She and I used to write long letters to each other, and over the years she's put up with my literary pretensions with the grace of someone who's much smarter and more artistic than I'll ever be.
Since Kathy lives in Minnesota, it thrilled me to talk to her face-to-face, virtually, and also to take part in a Zoom chat that wasn't business-related. And since I can be honest with her, I confided about the undercurrent of sadness I feel lately. As if I were Matthew Arnold surveying the landscape of Dover Beach.
In daylight, I'm fine... healthy, safe. So is my family. I appreciate that we are blessed and lucky. At night, though, when everything should be silent, I hear a distant, melancholy roar.
I can't get to sleep. I worry about everything.
To comfort me, Kathy mentioned "The Lament of Deor" -- which, of course, I had never heard of before -- to put things into perspective.
In this thousand-year-old poem, a man named Deor has been exiled from his life of luxury. He compares his situation to that of figures from Anglo-Saxon folklore who have all suffered an undeserved fate. After mentioning each tragic incident, the poet repeats the same phrase:
"That passed, and so may this... That passed, and so may this... That passed, and so may this."
Later that Monday, as we would all soon learn, there was an incident of unmasked racism -- a murder -- in Kathy's hometown.
I tried going to bed early to start the work week fresh, but my mind was racing. Around 11 p.m., I realized that Tuesday was the first day of twice weekly, summer garbage pickup in my hometown. I had forgotten to put out the trash cans. I forget to do a lot of things lately.
Hurrying downstairs to put the trash by the curb, I stopped short when I saw a dead rabbit lying near our white picket fence. Not only dead, but brutally torn to shreds... probably by one of the large, menacing crows that have been stalking our yard lately.
I found a shovel and buried the remains of the rabbit.
|Facebook post, 2014|
In 2014, we even began receiving U.S. mail from State Farm Insurance in care of "Bun Var" at our street address. In a running family joke, we always wave and say hello to the rabbit staring up at our house.
It was nearly midnight on Memorial Day when I returned to bed after burying Bun Var. That's when I finally remembered what had been gnawing at my subconscious.
I had forgotten to call my uncle.
He turned 90 years old a few months ago, and for many years he hosted a Memorial Day family picnic at his home near Hackettstown. When I was a boy, when my grandmother and grandfather lived there, we always called it "the country." So much land surrounds the house that it's the perfect place for an annual family outing.
We'd ride tractors, and play bocce, badminton and touch football (in imitation of the Kennedys). We welcomed pets, and one year there was a brief, almost disastrous, flirtation with lawn darts. My uncle kept ice buckets filled with drinks, and he did all the barbecuing. In the evening, his cousins would play guitars and encourage everyone to sing along ("You Are My Sunshine" was a favorite). Before everyone left, we always gathered for a family photo.
|My Mom and uncle on the front porch|
When we pulled up to his driveway last year, we were surprised to find him pushing a lawn mower, as if preparing for another picnic. He has trouble getting around these days, and it turned out he was basically using the mower as his walker.
My uncle still uses his sit-down tractor mower too. It's stored in his garage, where his car used to be. He doesn't drive anymore, although he has loved cars all his life. He knows everything about them. He used to maintain and repair all the family cars until the engines became computerized.
Last Memorial Day, as he and Mom talked on his front porch -- thick as thieves, giggling and telling stories as if they were young -- he turned wistful when he saw a car speed past on Route 46.
The Mars/M&M Car Show -- an annual Rotary Club benefit -- was being held in Hackettstown that afternoon. My uncle had been enjoying watching the old cars drive by, or seeing them carried on trailers.
He gestured toward Route 46. "Did you see that red GTO?" he asked, with the enthusiasm of a teenage boy. He briefly debated with himself what model year the car was, by the sound of its engine.
Right then, I decided to take him to this year's Car Show. I even put it on our family calendar. But I deleted the reminder after the Rotary Club canceled the event in mid-March because of the COVID-19 lockdown.
I didn't give it another thought until a few minutes before midnight on May 25, 2020. Haunted by the Ghost of Memorial Days past, I realized I hadn't even bothered to call my uncle.
That's a recurring theme among the followers of Jesus in the book I just finished reading: "Daily Reflections for Easter to Pentecost, Rejoice and Be Glad 2020." It was written by another friend, Mary DeTurris Poust, and published by Liturgical Press in Minnesota.
I had bought it months ago, mostly to support Mary. With all my extra time at home in the mornings in the age of COVID-19 (unable to sleep and with no commute), I decided "what the heck" and vowed to read the passages each day. The personal stories Mary included in the reflections delighted me. The Bible stories were familiar and comforting. They reconnected me to my better past, and reading the actual text will prevent me from saying things like, "As the Bible says, 'this too shall pass'."
The Bible doesn't say that. "The Lament of Deor" does.
A few days ago, I exchanged texts with Kathy. There's now looting and rioting near her home each night, and she described the details, noting at first that "we have 400 years of oppression to atone for."
I worry about her. I worry about everything these days.
Next year, I vow, I'll take my uncle to the car show in Hackettstown... if there is another show. Next Memorial Day will be different. Maybe it will be better.
This morning, I read the last pages of Mary's book. It's the day the Holy Spirit gave diverse people the gift to understand and love each other. Pentecost Sunday encourages us to rejoice despite everything because, in mysterious ways, God is always in our midst.
I opened my front door on this beautiful, cool morning in New Jersey, half expecting to see an incarnation of the Holy Spirit settled on a patch of dirt in my lawn.
There was no rabbit there.
I still have faith, though: I no longer see any crows.