When Glory Stings

For Loubencia, Mary, and Seth. 

I walk barefoot down the pier, soles embracing the splashed and gritty concrete. Just beyond the lighthouse, I join the cluster of silent congregants, waiting. Waiting for daylight to die.

Light dances on the rippling lake-water. As the sun sinks, the margins of the clouds glow like the embers of some celestial fire.

I carried my camera here, but to use it seems almost sacrilegious.

The Celts spoke of thin places. Places where the fabric that separates heaven and earth is gossamer, the divine veil sheer, and we can almost see through to the glory beyond.

Thin places cannot be captured by shutters.

The sun meets the water in one slow, ephemeral kiss. The heavens blaze with Hopkins’ gold-vermillion. And then, it’s gone. Day gently dips into death.

The cloud country radiates with the soft incandescence of the baptized sun.

Perhaps the sun has set on this world and I can only see the glowing of former glory. If I could just reach out and prick the veil, that glory would come spilling out from the pinhole. I am sure.

.~.~.~.

The child leans into my side, her finger floating just beneath the words. I balance the book on my knees and we peer down at the page together, backs against the orphanage’s tall concrete, compound wall.

“He sl-, he sli—, sssli—” she looks up at me, eyes questioning.

“Slithered,” I tell her. “It’s like this.” I trace a curling line up her chocolate colored arm with my white index finger.

She giggles, then returns to the page. “He slithered silently up to Eve. ‘Does God really love you?’” Her low voice and melodic Haitian accent caress the text.

Later, I climb into the back of the muddy white pickup with my friend Judy and we bounce along the unpaved roads through the tent city. The stench of human waste is pungent here. My sweat soaked skin burns and I twist my hair to the side, away from my sticky neck. I ask Judy who the little girl was—the then one with the short braids and blue beads—Lou something, was it?

She nods. “Loubencia.”

“What was that?”

“Lou-ben-see-uh.” Judy offers a short history. “She has AIDS. Stage four. She nearly died last November—was in the hospital, entirely unresponsive. It’s a miracle she’s alive.”

It’s been a year and a half since I sat against the wall in Haiti, reading with Loubencia. And she is dead. Seven days ago I saw it on Facebook. All this week I have choked on a single sob.

.~.~.~.

I cannot breathe. I lie curled on the floor in the corner of my dorm room. Body collapsed in, knees pulled to chest, lungs tight, hands fisted at forehead. I shake.

“You’ll love college,” Mary had told me when we hugged goodbye in August. Her hair was coming back in tight curls since the chemo had finished.

Mary cared about me. I didn’t ask her to care, but she did. We worked in the church office together. She introduced me to Noodles &Co, bantered with me in the office about Sunday’s music selection, kept up with my college search, and encouraged me to attend Wheaton.

When I left in home in August, they said that the cancer was gone.

Tears burn patterns down my cheeks.

It is not so much that I knew her well. I didn’t. But the shock of it. The stinging shock triggers memories—

My grandpa had a heart attack when I was ten. My pop-pop fell from a ladder while trimming trees and broke his neck. They both died like Mary: suddenly. I thought I could count on their living. That each one of them—Mary, Grampsy, and Pop-pop—would be there when I came back to hug them.

Curse the fruit of Eden. I will always hug longer.

Where is the glory when you can’t breathe for the cold, sharp pain in your lungs? Some days I cannot see the glory and I wonder, does God really love?

.~.~.~.

I was born in October, when leaves die. My mom says that when she brought me home in our royal blue Eagle Summit, the leaves assembled in bright golden canopies, welcoming life even in their death.

I admire the leaves. Someday, I hope to die like them. Bright, brave, incandescent in the sunlight, and thin. Martyrdom maybe. One quick, sharp tear and I will slip through the veil.

I’ve thought about my own death a lot, actually. When I was ten, even before my grampsy’s death, I read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and I was fascinated by Amy’s will. I wrote up a will of my own that specified choral music for my funeral and divided my precious books between my sisters.

Someday, when I do slip through the veil and into glory, I look forward to two meetings. First, I’ll meet my Savior. Then, I will meet my brother. We’ve never met before. You see, I was born with both lungs and two years later, he was born with neither. My mother says she felt him struggling within her womb on the day that he died.

I don’t know what I’ll say when I meet him.

Hi Seth.

I’m Angela, your sister.

I missed you. You would have been the nutcracker when I danced to Tchaikovsky CDs every Christmas. You were the Peter Pan who flew away and Lily played Wendy but I had to pretend to be you—because, you know, we didn’t have any other brothers. At college, I wanted to introduce you to my guy friends so you could grill them for me protectively. I wanted to hear your voice when I called home.

I missed you.

Every year on his birthday, my family and I visit the cemetery. There, we are almost complete: two parents, four sisters and a single brother, whose body rests in the ground beneath a small marble plaque. I sit beside it and tear at the grass along its edges.

Cemeteries can be thick or thin depending on how you see them.

.~.~.~.

It is March now. And slowly—to the delight of my entire campus—the snow is dying. It forms pools in the mud, reflecting the light of the great expanse. On my walk to lit class, I can hear water rushing down sidewalks and into freshly exposed earth.

This winter, we have had seventy-nine inches of pure white, snow. As the temperature breaches forty, melting snow baptizes the ground.

Death where is your victory?

Pure whiteness inhabits the earth in its cleansing death. From this communion we expect life and green.

.~.~.~.

I sink to my knees on the benches that form a circle around the altar. I close my eyes and listen as Father Martin’s gentle murmur drifts nearer. My arms rest on the smooth wooden railing and I cup my hands to receive life, life extended through death.

If a thin place is the nearest meeting of divine and terrestrial, then here is the most thin.

“His body, broken for you.”

I feel the soft, ripped bread as it is placed in my hands.

Moments later, a rector rests the large communal glass against my lips and I tilt it upwards.

“His blood, shed for you.”

I jerk a little when the wine bites my tongue. Glory stings sometimes. But you have to swallow. And I do.

 

I wrote this piece in 2014 during my freshman year at Wheaton. The following year, I submitted it to Wheaton’s Lowell-Grabill Creative Writing Contest and it placed first in the creative non-fiction category.

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