NDJ:6 Joy Mills, MDiv

Lew’s Bench

Shinzen Young tells me, “People live forever in wave form. The activity called Lew ripples through the universe in waves as well as particles. Let go of needing to know and voluntarily a new way of knowing will arise.” Barry Williams says, “Let the grief work on you.”

Inarticulate waves of unease build slowly all week approaching the sixth anniversary of the burying. The relentless restlessness; I scan for its source. “Lent. March. Palm Sunday, March 23. March 23, the day we buried Lew’s ashes—most of them—in Duxbury. 2002. This is 2008, six years,” I recite to myself. “Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil and Easter—and this year Lew’s birthday on Wednesday. This has to be it. What else could it be?” Wearily, I think, “How can I possibly have more to grieve? This is just another in an endless string of anniversaries.”

To calm the waves, I resolve: Sunday I will go to Lew’s memorial bench in St David’s arboretum and bury the ashes I have kept in my grandmother’s heavy cut-glass powder jar on my desk. Bury them in Pennsylvania where we lived the second half of our marriage. Bury them at St David’s where we both served as priests.

Instead Friday morning at 8:45, my mood plummets. After a delightful hour of morning reading, talking and breakfasting in the living room with Buck, my husband of four years, I walk into the bedroom to get dressed. As I pass my antique curly maple dressing table, depression crashes over me like a rogue wave. In an instant I am drowning in an undertow of despair. Standing in the closet, bewildered by the ordinary task of choosing clothes, I try to figure out what is going on. Is this anger and loneliness? Almost Easter and no children paying attention? I could generate anger about that. But the suddenness. The intensity. Unbidden tears slide down my cheeks.

Buck hugs me as I head out to my therapy appointment with my therapist who anchored me in the unremitting storm of dying, death and grieving. In our session, I ramble around in my thoughts, probing the pain, finding no resonances. He follows my words, interjects his. Accompanied, I go further, teary and floundering. Suddenly, I sense an opening. I drop down and then surface: “All those questions we had about the words of the liturgy, all our conversations about how to talk about God.” I sob. “Together we were on the tantalizing verge of new words, new images. All we needed was time to put words around what we were experiencing. Now I will never hear his words, see his images.” The connection between my pain and this loss is excruciating.

The arboretum is on my way home; I will go there.

In the dirt circle beyond Old St David’s Church, I pull my car to a stop. I walk across the wooden planks of the tiny foot bridge onto the soft earthen path that rings the arboretum. Immediately, I see defiant clusters of vibrant, petite, yellow flowers on their four-inch spring green stalks. It seems as if they were planted beneath the budding trees to lighten my heart. Next to them an array of equally small and brave white flowers shimmers in the late March sun. On my right the stream I could cross in two strides bubbles swiftly over the rocks on its gradual downhill course. I slow my pace as, on my way to Lew’s bench, I pass by an ancient, sagging, moss-imbedded bench where I sat to read the marriage service on our first wedding anniversary six months after Lew’s death. When I came to the words “I give you this ring…,” I removed the broad gold band Lew had slid onto my finger 28 years before and shifted it onto my right hand where I already wore the matching band I had given him.

Now the path, following the stream, turns gently to the left and begins to rise. Walking in a contemplative rhythm, I notice tender sea green shoots poking up from the thawing earth. Further up the slight incline I see the sturdy new teak bench purchased and installed by Lew’s friends. Here at the edge of the arboretum, hardy, pale yellow daffodils flower in burgeoning masses. The tall trees have barely budded so that the sun still shines on them from across the open expanse of the broad greening field with the huge, higgledy-piggledy rectangle of parishioners’ dormant Victory gardens. I chose the location for the bench: in the arboretum but as close as possible to Lew’s garden patch where each year he struggled with weeds and bugs to produce fresh vegetables. When they were finally served up at family dinners, Lew would say, “Fifteen minutes ago these vegetables were….” and our children would chime in, “.. .growing in the garden.” Then sighs and laughter.

I study the handsome bronze plaque designed by a member of Lew’s men’s group. A flame opens the lower circumference of the circle and twists upward; the inscription reads: “In Memory of Lewis H. Mills, Senior Associate Rector, 1985-1994- Listen Carefully and Rejoice in the Voice of God.” I sit on the bench and pay attention. Seeing the field of new grass lit by the sun rising higher into the sky, I double over to hold and comfort myself. Wrenching sobs rock my body. “There is no choice; I have to do this; I have to do even this work alone.” The sobs subside when I look up. The sharp, clear radiance astonishes me.

Once again, bidden, yet unexpected, I am pulled through the eye of the needle. The welling up of Presence permeates me with certainty. Lew’s words and images are imbedded in mine and I will write the theology.