MAY 31, 2016
My husband recently sent me an article from the Washington Post about death rates sky rocketing for women between the ages 25-55 in rural, lower-middle class areas of the central states of our country, because of rampant alcoholism (these women are drinking themselves to death).
The article, while attempting to discuss this quickly growing death rate of a larger population of people (specifically white women), did so by walking through the personal story of one woman, Anna, who had recently died from cirrhosis of the liver, and the family and friends who survived her. In the body of the email my husband wrote, “Sad.” He was right and a bit understated; the article was not only sad but communicated desperation and hopelessness on a visceral level. A bright, young, strong, and capable woman who is motivated by tenacity and sustained by fortitude encounters one hardship after another to the point that she is beaten down and turns more and more to the bottle to deal with the pain. Every time hardships and disappointments knocked on Anna’s door, the more she drank her bottom shelf vodka by the pint-full.
“‘Life didn’t always break her way. She dealt with that sadness,’ said Candy Payne, the funeral officiant. ‘She tried her best. She loved her family. But she dabbled in the drinking, and when things got tough the drinking made it harder.’”
The words of her daughters and that of her friend, Candy, at Anna’s internment articulate not only the sadness of the loss of their mother and friend at the young age of 54, but also the heart’s deep cry of “Why?”
“Candy, who in addition to being the officiant was also a close family friend, motioned for Tiffany and Maryann to bring over the container holding their mother’s cremated remains. They opened the lid and the ashes blew back into their dresses and out into the pasture.
‘No more hurt. No more loneliness,’ Candy said.
‘No more suffering,’ Tiffany said.
They shook out the last ashes and circled the grave as Candy bowed her head to pray.
‘We don’t know why it came to this,’ she said. ‘We trust You know the reasons. We trust You have the answers.’”
It’s not just an average, “Why?” but the dreaded “Why?” The “Why?” that comes with no answer and that reveals the disbelief that the picture—labeled with pen, “1966,” in the upper left corner–of the beautiful and vibrant young child is now the same woman who found life so intolerable and painful that her only recourse was vast amounts of alcohol and eventual death. Yes; the correct and proper question is “Why?”
I read every dang word of that article desperate to find some good word, some good news, any inkling of hope; sadly, there was none…not even at the end. Her son, Davy, is the primary figure of the article as it ends,
“Davey sipped from the bottle [of vodka]. He gulped from the water. He lay back on the couch, where lately he had been having a recurring dream. He was sitting in the living room with his mother, a woman not yet 55 who had some color back in her cheeks and her hair pulled into a braid. He wanted to be honest with her, to tell her she was dying, and finally he blurted it out: You’re dying, he said, but she didn’t look back at him. You’re dying, he said again. You’re dying! But the TV was blaring, the bottle was in her hands, her eyes were glazed over, and she was too far gone to hear him.”
That’s it. That’s how the story ends. “She was too far gone to hear him.” A son plagued by nightmares of not being able to save his mother and a conscience that is clearly accusing him for not trying hard enough. That’s what I was left with as I finished the article. It was all I could do not to grab the sides of the screen of my laptop and yell as loud as I could into the screen, “NO! THAT’S NOT THE END…THERE’S MORE! THERE’S A GOOD WORD AND IT’S JESUS CHRIST!” Despair and hopelessness fell into my lap; my heart broke, and I cried. I cried for the pain of this family, the pain of all the people suffering in a similar way, for the fact that often times our grief is met with silence and how painful that is. I want the Dickens and Austen endings to the story, not the Kafka and Dostoevsky endings.
And then I was gently reminded, Psalm 88. Psalm 88 is one of the rare psalms that does not end on the expected high note of praise and thanksgiving so indicative of David’s writing. Rather, here is the ending to Psalm 88,
“But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless. Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me. They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together. You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness” (vv. 13-18).
The enduring refrain pulled through the entire psalm is one of, “Do you hear me?” and that refrain is met, repeatedly, with silence to the point that at the end, the Psalmist seems to be on the brink of despair. You do not hear me; You have abandoned me; I am utterly lost and forsaken. I hate to admit that this dark-night-of-the-soul isn’t relegated to people far removed from us; this type of dark-night-of-the-soul plagues our own bodies and minds. Many of us have had moments of grief and pain, suffering and loss, depression and near despair that have been met by the discomfort of Divine silence; there’s no explanation for what’s happened to you or why you’ve suffered, there’s only silence and it’s crushing. You are left crying, “Why?”
And as I read and reread Psalm 88 my eyes are drawn to vv. 10-12,
“Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?”
And the article and the psalm become interlaced; David’s questions have become my questions. But these questions do have an answer: Yes. Do you work wonders for the dead? Yes. Do the departed rise up to praise you? Yes. Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Yes. Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness? Yes. Do you hear me, see my pain and suffering and grief? Yes.
David’s questions have become my questions. But these questions do have an answer: Yes.
Divine silence is never the last word: the bible doesn’t end with Malachi; the advent of Christ comes after years and years of deep prophetic dead-air; Easter Sunday comes after the silence of Saturday; there is a Psalm 89. Silence is God’s fertile and holy ground that reduces us to dust only to be recreated by His word spoken through His son the eternal Word by the power of the Holy Spirit. In His silence we are brought to the humble position fitting to our humanity and His divinity, “‘Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!’” (Ps. 46:10).
Even when everything around us is cloaked in oppressive wordlessness and our “why?” echoes off of the walls of our soundproof prison, God has spoken. And this word, the Word, Jesus Christ, can pierce any darkness, permeate any silence, and percolate deep in the recesses of any heart hope and faith that all of our pain, our suffering, our grief, our cries of “why?” have not been met with dead silence but with the life-giving answer: it will not always be so!
“‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mt 5:4)