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Evelyn Bence

The Longest Saturday

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down

Care for the bodies of our dead is an affirmation of our firm belief in the resurrection.
Saint Augustine, "On Caring for the Dead"

It is Good Friday, two springs after my mother's death, the first spring after my father's. Today I'm less aware of the Savior's torturous dying than of the cold death, the artists' visions of Mary cradling a man's corpse, believing his final phrase: "It is finished." With another woman's Joseph, she wrapped her son in swaddling cloths and laid him in a stone tomb because there was no room among the living. On Sunday morning other Marys carrying aromatic spices would hope to delay the decay, but they knew there was no real disguise. Flesh to dust.

This awareness is heightened, having two weeks ago read the March "assignment" for my book group, a short story, "Roof Work" by Joe Ashby Porter. The low-action plot goes something like this: While repairing a roof, 20-year-old Patrick listens to an older neighbor's childhood perception of altar-call manipulation. The self-absorbed tale explains why she as an adult has no Christian faith. Her story goes on for 11 pages, and then there's an abrupt shift to "four days later," when Patrick dreams of glimpsing his father's "rotting face," coffined now for three years. The memory of the dream changes him and his grief. "I had taken the death as a fact about me," now orphaned, "and strangely not taken it as what it was above all, a fact about Poppa."1

I read this story with dispassion, focusing on the editorial puzzle I couldn't figure out; what hinge connected the story on the roof and the dream underground? The Sunday-afternoon group discussion revolved around this question and landed on the limits of a self-referential view of life and death, humanity and God. Though it was Lent, I didn't immediately identify seasonal themes. Ash Wednesday's sober litany: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." Or the Old Testament reading I'd heard that very morning: Ezekiel's vision of dry bones. When I left the hostess' condo, I tossed the anthology into the backseat and didn't give the story another thought. For a week I myopically focused on maintaining my standard of living long hours of editing under a tight deadline.

But ten days later, this past Tuesday, in Holy Week, I awoke, startled from a vivid dream about my mother. Since her death I'd dreamt of her several times; she was in her prime, walking, talking, cooking. In that dream-world I knew something wasn't right; I would challenge her: "What are you doing? You're not supposed to be here. You're dead." But in this latest dream, seeded by Porter's fiction, an oddly twisted reality struck: Untraditionally buried, my mother's casket sat at the bottom of a muddy pond. Drought a current local worry had lowered the water level. The hardwood, now exposed, had rotted through; inside the box I saw my mother's decomposing body.

The dream memory is not of her face as much as her blackened left thigh on which I used to lay my head during Sunday night sermons. A vaguely defined we, probably siblings, didn't repair the coffin; what more harm could nature work? With a crane, we moved the box to deeper water, where it dropped again to the depths as I shook myself awake, unsettled.

Once or twice a year, growing up, we drove three hours to my mother's sister's farm in northern Pennsylvania. To or from, the car stopped on a rural road, turned, and rolled under the wrought-iron arch that marked the entrance to what we called simply "the cemetery." At five miles an hour all passengers perfectly silent by now we rode to the far end of the short rutted road, then climbed out. We left, watered, or picked up a clay crock of red geraniums that seasonally attended the small gravestones of the two brothers I never knew. We pulled a few weeds. With a little pride that they'd taken care of this detail Mom or Dad pointed out their adjoining double headstone. "This is where we'll be buried." Years of birth etched in. Dates of death not. "And we bought three extra places here, in case … ." the sentence trailed off. We never stayed more than five minutes. We never said a prayer for the living or the dead.

As a child I did not connect "the cemetery" with particular people I had known and loved. I was nearly fifty before I felt the sting of being left behind by someone whose absence made a difference in how I viewed myself or the world. A family voice silenced. A familiar face stilled.

My older siblings, on the other hand, retain vivid memories of startling moments when they grasped the reality of the death of their eight-year-old brother, Jimmy.

For some reason Dad demanding one last good-bye? Jimmy's casket was opened at the cemetery. Brother Bud tells me this and ties it to his horror when he then peeked through a gap in the green tarp, saw the deep-dug hole, and suddenly understood Jimmy's confined physical fate.

Younger Alice remembers a church service a week later, when the congregation sang lines by William Cowper that still make her shiver: "When this poor lisping, stammering tongue / Lies silent in the grave."

I did not see my mother the day she died, though I received the notifying call and relayed the news. Two sisters, with Dad, got to the nursing home before the mortician. At Mother's bedside they sat or paced half an hour, trying to assimilate the news. She was talkative and bright just yesterday. What happened? Finally they asked Dad if he wanted some time alone with Mother, before leaving. "No," he answered, looking at her warm but lifeless form. "She isn't here." Her breath is gone. This is just a shell.

After Mother's graveside service, Dad and I, both spouseless, stepped away from the crowd for several minutes, surveying the landscape. He'd intended for Mom's grave to be on the left rather than the right, but he hadn't thought to tell anyone, and what difference did it make now? "But look, right here …. There'll be a place for you."

I nodded a noncommittal thank you and didn't think much about it until we were at the cemetery a year later, when all we mourners arrived half an hour before the hearse carrying Dad's body. While we waited, my niece's three-year-old having received an age-appropriate explanation of cemetery markers came around tugging on skirts. "Which little house is yours?" he asked before running off, making circles around one headstone, then another. Which house? Is my name written there? Here? Where?

As the hearse stopped, turned left, and drove under the wrought-iron arch, I remembered a cryptic conversation Dad and I had with Mother one evening in the nursing home. She'd been to an afternoon church service. "What was the sermon about?" I asked.

She'd listened well enough to catch a sound-bite. "Jesus is going to take a trip."

We probed for clarity. "What?"

She repeated her one line, satisfied that she'd answered our question.

Dad frowned his incomprehension.

"With his disciples?" I asked.


"To Jerusalem?"


"To where?"

"To prepare a place."

We laughed, but not out loud. John 14: "In my Father's house are many mansions … . I go to prepare a place for you … . I will come again, and receive you unto myself."

I have returned several times to the cemetery, to water flowers and pull weeds from around the rose of Sharon my sisters planted, a long-flowering bush Dad had wished for and thought to tell someone. The headstone is complete, death dates etched in. Everyone assumes I'll claim one of the extra plots, though I remain uncommitted, hesitant to see myself buried, there, here, anywhere.

In his Gospel, Luke quotes Jesus, near death, promising a fellow cross-hanger that they would that very day meet each other in paradise. On this commemoration of that Friday crucifixion, I claim his stated principle in spirit, for my spirit. Jesus went to prepare a place that is now ready to receive the breath that is uniquely mine, the breath that is unique to each of God's people.

But the flesh, I know, must wait through the grave disintegration that troubled early Christians so much that stories arose of Mary's dead but warm body being angel-whisked to heaven. "The symbol of purity itself could not be given to the worms for pasture; the image of eternal spring could not rot in the grave."2 It was easier to believe in divine intervention than to imagine the physical putrification of such a perfect shell.

Flesh to dust. Low in the grave, through Friday and then the longest Saturday to the end of the age. Waiting the coming day of transformation, when dry bones and ashes will be redeemed and gathered to a brighter, wider Sunday place, beyond a grander gate.

Late in the evening of this Friday called Good, I open one sympathy card I've kept. When Mother died, a friend sent it, including a paragraph by Frederick Buechner, revised with gender-appropriate pronouns. Defining "immortality" in his book Wishful Thinking, he notes the creedal importance of a bodily resurrection:

What God … . prizes enough to bring back to life is not just some disembodied echo of a human being but a new and revised version of all the things which made her the particular human being she was and which she needs something like a body to express; her personality, the way she looked, the sound of her voice, her peculiar capacity for creating and loving, in some sense her face.3

Her forehead, her lips, her eyes.

As I go to bed on this dark Friday night, I will seed my dreams with the ancient poetry of Job 19:26-27:

After my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes I, and not another.

And then mutter the last revelatory words of John the Divine, anticipating Jesus' next dramatic trip: "Come, Lord Jesus" (Rev. 22:20).

Evelyn Bence, an editor and writer, lives in Arlington, Virginia. This essay is part of a book in progress.

1. Joe Ashby Porter, "Roof Work," in Lithuania (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1990). Reprinted in Michael Curtis, ed., God: Stories (Houghton Mifflin, 1998).

2. Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (London: Quartet Books, 1978), p. 82.

3. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking (Harper & Row, 1973), pp. 42-43.

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