Sunday, January 3, 2010

On Running Away

The grief matters. Blessed are those who grieve, for they will be comforted. Jesus wept. Fragments of lines sifted as from a background of jumbled letters, phrases rising to the front for an instant, then giving way to the next. There didn't seem to be any rhyme to the order in which they came. A reaction, a mental exercise, calling upon the words rooted in memory that might give comfort and sustenance.

The fragments of text wavered before my eyes and I stared through them, seeing the physical reality in front of me. My hands rested on a thin railing. I shifted my weight to my other foot, feeling the weight of the backpack move with me. Candles glowed from a tilted board below my eyeline. Unknown prayers. The sign next to my hands on the wooden railing read that these candles were lit by mothers. What were they searching for? Beyond the candles, the carved figure of the woman with the blue mantle was still. I had already lit a candle at the altar for the patron saint of lost children, but it was near this figure I stayed the longest. I lit another candle, dropped more coins in the box. I turned, but kept my eyes on the figure of Mary, the grieving mother. The patron saint of lost children was one thing, but Mary really knew what she was doing. She had survived the death of her son. I'm not catholic, but I understood the appeal of asking the saints' intervention. We want to talk to a person who can understand what we have been through because they have endured the same pain.

The church, one of the first I explored in Italy, was as small, in cathedral terms, as the town it occupied on the Ligurian coast. It was striped black and white in marble. The legend at the entry way said that it was run by an order of monks who, in the middle ages, dedicated themselves to providing funerals for those who could not afford them, orphans, widows, and the poor. Inside, there are gruesome skulls carved in the wood and marble surfaces, and, like most churches, several altars where votives are lit to various saints. The doors were vacuum sealed to preserve some of the artwork, and whooshed impressively as we went in. The air inside was still and cold and smelled of marble and dust and wax. The three of us wandered around the interior aimlessly and quietly. We hadn't yet done much touring, since we had planned to recover from jet lag and spend the first three days quietly in a small oceanside town before we hit the big cities.

I finally turned from the altar and made eye contact with Sarah and Jessi and we headed back toward the front door. It was 40 degrees and getting ready to thunderstorm outside. As the doors whooshed open, I stopped and looked back at Mother Mary with a silent prayer for Mother Laurie, who had just lost her son back home in Washington State. The candle I had lit wavered dully in the last breeze from the brewing thunderstorm outside, before the vacuum seal of the doors closed upon it.

Still silent, we walked back down the alleyed streets toward the beach, where a trail led up to the train station. I looked sideways at Sarah and noticed she still had tear tracks on her face. We all probably did.

"You know," I said, "I always wanted to wave goodbye to someone at a train station. But this would have been so much more romantic if Anne was a boy." We all laughed, and it was good to laugh. The wind came up as we followed the trail around the curve of the cliff and blew cold and sharp in our faces. We could see the curve of the tracks now, following the cliff along the beach, heading north back to Milan. Anne had taken that train an hour earlier, going back to Milan to fly back home and be with her family to grieve the death of her cousin. The adventure to Italy we had been planning and saving for over the last two years had taken quite a different turn than we had expected. Instead of an adrenaline-driven two-week escape, we had only had a day before we found out, four of us crammed in a red telephone booth after dinner in the tiny town of Rio Maggiore, Anne hearing the news through the tenuous trans-Atlantic thread that carried the voice of her step-father.

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swilson said...
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