My friend Don has been a widower for four weeks now. A lot of the bustle that surrounds death – the funeral homes and memorial services, the out-of-town relatives who overstay their welcome, the meetings with lawyers to sort out wills and estates, the steady stream of well-intentioned people who don’t know what to say, but who want to be kind anyway – has now settled down. Now there is only the succession of interminable days, marked by the ticking of a clock in a silent room, an empty chair where someone once sat, an empty bed.
“It will get better,” I tell him. I don’t know what to say either. I don’t know if it will get better. I hope it does.
“Do you think so?” he asks. “I’m 65 years old. I’m set in my ways. I’m a farmer with a Ph.D, a vegetarian who juices five pounds of carrots every day. I go on week-long silent retreats at monasteries, but I don’t want to be a monk. And I’m crazy about Jesus. You think there’s a steady stream of soul mates just waiting to get in line?”
“You’re funny, Don” I tell him. “I think you have a wonderful, caring heart. I think everybody who knows you knows that. And right now I think you need to walk in the dark, and trust that God is good.”
It’s not much comfort, I know. There are really no good words for someone who has recently witnessed ventilators and heart defibrillators and morphine drips, the machinery of death. All the hopes and prayers, the desperate groping for a cure, the alternative medicines, the healing services, the late-night hospital trips, the flashing siren lights – all of it has passed now. There were weeks and months and years of frenetic activity. Now there is … nothing, a sort of dreadful peace and quiet. And I look to fill the void.
“I hear Rebecca Shaw’s cancer has disappeared,” I tell him. “You remember me telling you about her? It’s a miracle. The doctors are confounded. They don’t know what to think.” Don sits in silence. No kidding. What is he supposed to say to that? Stupid. What the hell is wrong with me?
"I’m sorry, Don,” I tell him. “I don’t know what to say, and I end up saying ridiculous, insensitive things. But I’m so sorry, and I’m so saddened for you.”
We cry for a while. We sit on Don’s farmhouse porch, and watch the sun go down on an impossibly bright, green May evening. For ten minutes there is no sound but the singing of birds, the chirping of crickets, and sobs. Eventually he speaks.
“I couldn’t go to church, you know,” he says. “Not on Easter Sunday, not when my wife died the day before. I couldn’t deal with all the Alleluias and the lilies. I’ve seen enough damn flowers lately to last me for a lifetime. So I stayed home, and sat on this porch. And I watched the Easter sunrise, not because I was up early for a service, but because I couldn’t go to bed. Did you ever do that?”
“No,” I tell him.
“Well, I watched the Easter sunrise. It was glorious. Joyce and I used to sit out on this porch whenever we could, morning or evening. A lot of times she woke me up in the mornings, and I didn’t mind, because it was always spectacular. You get some spectacular sunrises and sunsets out here, up on this hill, out in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing but you and God. And Joyce, of course. There was Joyce.”
“Sure,” I say.
“So I can’t say that I was too brokenhearted about not going to church,” Don says. “But I’m glad I saw that sunrise.”
“I’m glad you did, too,” I tell him. We sit in the gathering darkness.
“Do you know what the sweetest time was?” he asks me after a while.
“No,” I say.
“Toward the end there, the last few months, Joyce couldn’t really walk very well. She was in a wheelchair, you know. But there was an evening back in early April, before she went to the hospital for the last time, when I lifted her up from her wheelchair and carried her out onto this porch. And I turned on the radio in the living room, but we could hear it out on the porch, and we just held each other and swayed and listened to the music and watched the sunset. Just slow dancing, you know. That was the sweetest time.”
“Hold on to that,” I tell him. “I’m going to help you hold on that.”
“How are you going to do that?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I say.
We talk softly for a while. I pray for him. I hug him, and tell him I love him, because I do. Otherwise, I mostly have the good sense to shut up. Then I drive home, a long hour-and-a-half journey through gently rolling Ohio farmlands, and I arrive to find a wife and two daughters and their friends, a place full of life and light and noise. Don sits in his living room, and listens to the ticking clock, and watches an empty chair.