Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Hard Truth - December 2004

Several nights ago I tucked my sons into bed. They each have their own rooms but Colin likes to sleep with someone, so sometimes Marty will sleep in Colin’s bunkbeds for a few weeks. Other times, we drag the mattress out from under the twin bed in Marty’s room and Colin sleeps with him. That’s the present configuration. In a week or so, Colin will get kicked out to his own room and we’ll endure an insane week of sleepless nights when he reads ancient history until 2 a.m. and wakes up groggy in the mornings. Then Marty will agree to sleep on the top bunk for awhile and equilibrium will return.

Anyway, as I scooched between the bed and the mattress to do my motherly deed, I went largely unnoticed. They were talking about the Red Sox and offered their cheeks for pecking in a perfunctory manner while pursuing their conversation.

“’night, Mom.”

“’night, Mom.”

Fine with me. Maybe they were talking about the recent defection of shortstop Orlando Cabrera to the San Diego Padres for $32 million over four years, (just as we were coming to love him,) but the truth is I don’t rightly know.

I continued down the hall switching off lights and as I doubled back past their room on my way to my bedroom I heard, Marty, my catcher and true Red Sox fan, say to his brother about something or other, “That’s the hard truth.”

It wasn’t my conversation so I didn’t interrupt to find out what Marty’s truth was but I knew that it was something incontrovertible.

Most hard truths are. Right now it’s the hard truth that about 150,000 people have died in Asia and Africa as the result of last Sunday’s tsunami and millions of people around the world have been affected by the disaster.

My neighbor and friend, Ingrid, who spent every summer of her childhood in her mother’s native Norway, got word that her favorite Norwegian cousin, on vacation in Thailand with his wife and young daughter, is missing. His wife was found in a tree three kilometers from the beach, injured but alive. Their daughter is missing as well. Please say a prayer for that family.

Just three days ago I received a Christmas card from my college friend Mallihai (a beautiful name that means jasmine in Tamil). She lives in Australia now but her parents and brother and family still live in Colombo, Sri Lanka. I don’t have her current email so I can’t ask if they are okay.

Six degrees of separation? No. Not even close.

A few years ago I received a call from a member of the diocese who had been asked to ring the bell for a service to mark the first anniversary of September 11.

"How many times do I ring it?" she asked. I didn't have an answer. It's not a question I get a lot.

"One church in the diocese always rings one peal for each apostle," I began, groping. "My church has a child ring the bell three times for the Trinity.” Dead end. I thought of going to an ordained member of the diocesan staff then I realized they probably don’t teach the finer points of church bell ringing in seminary either. But then I thought of something. "Let me tell you a story," I said.

"When my husband and I were first married, we taught at a Catholic high school on an island in Micronesia. One afternoon as we were leaving school, which was located next to the Cathedral Church, a funeral for a child was just beginning. As we walked into the dusty parking lot, the death knell began. DONG, an excruciating pause. DONG, again, a terrible pause. DONG, the vibration took endless seconds to dull. And on and on it went. We were frozen in our tracks -- struck by the emotional power of a bell being rung ever so slowly for a child we would never know...for the sorrow inside that church as the mourners arrived in twos and threes. Saipan was a place where, even in 1985, few people had telephones. They still depended on church bells."

"That's it. I'm going to suggest that," she said, glad for an answer that made a little bit of sense about how to mark a day that will never make any sense at all.

The evocative power of the death knell: 20 years later and I still get the shivers just recalling how dirty my sandals were as I bowed my head to listen.

John Donne had it right. There is no need to send for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for each of us every single time. “I am involved in mankind,” he wrote 382 years ago. But life is so much easier when we aren’t involved, when we stay aloof and unattached. Yet in doing so, the best parts of us atrophy and die and that’s the hard truth.

Involvement is an act of choosing to do simple, specific things. I can do a hundred little things that will make a difference in my tiny sphere: a kind word, a note, a phone call, a batch of cookies, a held door, a well-timed wink, a squeeze to someone’s arm, a brief, funny email, a smile, a nod.

God give us in this new year the grace to choose the hard path of being involved in the lives of people placed in our path whether next door or 6000 miles away.

Copyright © 2004 All rights reserved.