A Chair for the Beloved Dead

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My friend, Peter Mazar, of blessed memory, told me about a Hungarian Christmas custom. Once the table was set for the feast, with a plate and a chair for each expected guest, another chair was brought to the table. This chair was for all the beloved dead, unseen, and yet present. In one of his last letters, he wrote that the chair grew more crowded every year.

The chair grows more crowded every year.

There is Owen, the baby boy who died as his parents sang to him, their voices rising while the whir of the hospital machinery stilled. “You are my sunshine,” they sang. And he was.

There is, Taylor, the seventeen-year old girl who followed the fourteen-month old boy in a death sudden and soon. Her parents grieve in ways strangers to that land cannot know, in a language strangers do not know, hope never to learn.

There is Joanne, the parishioner who always sat in the pew in front of us, beaming at our grandchildren even as they dropped crayons down her back, coughed wetly in her face and accompanied her prayers with their wails.

There is Nada, the neighbor, who prepared for her death by finding and thanking all the people who had helped or befriended or encouraged her over the years. She died just days before her daughter’s wedding, but not before giving her daughter a witness, not before teaching her how to be a woman, a wife, a mother, a friend.

There is Uncle Arnold, who waited and waited without her until, at last, his Lea came to the hospice and called him home. No one doubted he had seen her. No one doubted she had come.

At the wake, a childhood friend told how Arnold had broken his nose in a Golden Gloves boxing match. He concluded, simply, “Arnold was the finest man I ever knew.”

There is Uncle R.B., born and raised on the south plains of the Texas panhandle. He was a farmer, and he knew the land. He could read the sky and name all the animals. He could tell you when and why he had planted each tree on the farm. He sowed seed on dry, dry ground and harvested bounty.

We are told to remember how they taught us.

I learned the word “windbreak” from him. I learned it standing in a tangle of Russian olive trees. How fitting that R.B. taught me the word, since a windbreak is what he was for me, and for so many who mourn him. In the panhandle, the winds howl. They blow dust in the summer and ice in the winter.

Windbreak trees in the panhandle bear the signs of the wind. Their trunks are bent, as they absorb the force that would otherwise be spent against the house and pens and barns they were planted to protect. In the panhandle, a windbreak is a sign of care, a sign of life.

We know other deaths will come. Some we are awaiting. My mother has come to long for hers, and rightly so. Some will take us unawares and unprepared, pierced by grief sharper than any knife.

And the chair will grow more crowded every year.

In November, the church bids us stop, and remember. We are told to stop acting as if death has nothing to do with us, as though the right combination of vitamins and exercise and positive thinking will slay death.

The church bids us to stop, and remember. We are told to remember the beloved dead who have gone before us in faith, to recall how made a way for us, in life and in death. We are told to remember how they taught us.

I have travelled some since my mid-century birth in Tulia, Texas. I saw a centuries-old live oak in South Carolina as big as a house.

Trees do not grow so big in the Texas panhandle.  The native cottonwoods cluster around creeks and irrigation ditches and they grow more like bushes than like towering oaks.  A windbreak there is made of many trees.  Some farmers plant them all the way from the main road to the house, and then around: a safe passage in to a safe place.

Peter had his Hungarian image.  Mine is all Texas. I think of them, hundreds now, and I see them for who they were, and what they remain, a windbreak. They were planted between the killing wind and me. They gave me shade and shelter. They pointed me to water.  They showed me the way home.

Sometimes I close my eyes and see them, planted in rows against the cloud-streaked sky.  I see them as women, and men, and children, their faces known and dear, their hands upraised in blessing and in welcome. They wear mercy; they bear it on their breasts.  They are not the proud and singular, but a grove, seed-sewn close, of the forgiven and the redeemed.

I will take my place there in time.

– Melissa Musick

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