We were the last to come. The trip was longer than we’d planned and by the time we got to the church, nearly all the pews were filled.
My old friend stood at the front of the church, a small cluster of people around her. An arm’s length away, her daughter lay in a casket, her black hair splayed across a satin pillow and a bouquet of flowers at her waist. A small poster of the Virgin Mary was propped on the casket’s lid. She was still like a painted wooden statue, her extraordinary light gone, doused. There were only a few hints left of the exotically beautiful girl she had been.
I hugged my friend. It was a desperate, clenching hug, full of knowing and apology and grief. I’m so sorry, I said. I’m so sorry, I thought. I’m sorry that your daughter’s life ended, sorry that this terrible thing happened to you, sorry that I’ve stayed safe from grief for so long, sorry that I haven’t taken my turn, sorry my sympathy is such a small dry kernel to offer. How can what I have to give you be made bigger?
We sat in the fourth pew behind a dozen cousins and best friends. They were sitting shoulder to shoulder like students at an assembly; their seriousness radiating off them. There was no chatting, no whispered comments or gesturing, just solemn sitting. One man’s long blonde dreadlocks were twisted in a loose knot. Another’s ear lobes were stretched to accommodate two-inch hoops. He wore a trainman cap that showed a ragged edge of red hair. They sat in the front row where family sits, their pew with an engraved metal plate that said “reserved.”
Settling in, I snagged my bracelet on a hymnal. It was one of a pair of bracelets that had been my mother’s. The elastic band snapped and the bracelet’s beads scattered on the carpet. I leaned over to pick them up, each tan bead, each silver bead, and put them in my purse as if later I’d restring them although I knew I wouldn’t. It was a cheap bracelet but it was my mother’s and I wouldn’t let my mother’s beads lay on the carpet like trash to be vacuumed up by the custodian. I reached with my foot to roll the far beads toward me so I could pick them up. Each bead had become precious to me in that moment.
After the service, I sat with my husband and friends we have known for a long time, our children having grown up together in many ways, and we talked with our bereaved friend and hugged her and took our time about it. We listened to the story of her daughter’s death and heard every word, patient, as she knew we would be, even though we hadn’t seen each other for a long time. She knew we would take her story in our laps and hold it like a child. She had that trust in us.
On the way home in the car, I read through a book of writings by Rumi. I’d taken the book with me hoping to find something on the trip to the funeral that would be in my head during the service but the pieces were all too long and too complicated. But on the way home, the book fell open at this poem which began with “Sit with your friends; don’t go back to sleep” and reminded me that “Life’s waters flow from darkness,” both things being true today, each more precious than my mother’s beads in that moment.
Search the Darkness
Sit with your friends; don’t go back to sleep.
Don’t sink like a fish to the bottom of the sea.
Surge like an ocean,
don’t scatter yourself like a storm.
Life’s waters flow from darkness.
Search the darkness, don’t run from it.
Night travelers are full of light,
and you are, too; don’t leave this companionship.
Be a wakeful candle in a golden dish,
don’t slip into the dirt like quicksilver.
The moon appears for night travelers,
be watchful when the moon is full.
Translated by Kabir Helminsky in The Rumi Collection, Shambhala Publications, 1998