Long time readers (and our wedding guests) know that Joel's brother Brian passed away when he was 15. Joel was 18. If we're friends, you also know that Joel's family believes that Brian hangs around a lot and/or sends messages from.... Heaven? The Other Side? The Afterlife? Whatever you believe, I guess.
He makes his presence known through things like perfectly timed songs on the radio. He also likes to mess with the lights, the TV, and quite possibly, an unsuspecting restaurant hostess in a tourist town on Easter a year ago. (Joel's note: "That was fuckin' weird, too fuckin' weird to be a coincidence.")
When I first met Joel's family, I... well, I didn't *not* believe them. I thought they were grieving. I thought they were making a leap of faith because they wanted what everyone- well, at least, what the audience members en masse at tapings of John Edwards Cross-County wants: proof that their loved one is okay, that he's watching and loving them and still a part of this family.
And then Joel and I started shacking up. Doors started opening on their own. In January. When no windows are open. The television started tuning itself to sitcoms set in Queens, but only on the anniversary of Brian's death. Lights started going nuts on Passover. And there's Joel- the scientist, the empirical thinker, the analyst of data, the weigher of constants and variables- and the reason he believes.
The story goes something like this. Brian was on the couch in Joel's childhood home when his heart stopped. Afterwards, their family dog would occasionally act oddly. Flint would stare at Brian's place from time to time, and he never curled up on that side of the couch anymore. One day, when Joel was home alone, Flint the dog was doing his thing, and Joel just asked, out loud. "Look, Brian, if you're around, could you like, do something to tell me it's you?" And a lightbulb blew. In that instant. *Pop* Okaaay...
And then in December, Brad's time was nigh. It was awful. It was beautiful. And awful. I asked Brad to blow out a lightbulb if he could, let me know he was okay. We all held each other in a swirl of grace and pain and love and courage, and then he was gone. The supernatural strength and focus I felt in his last two days dissolved; I went to a deep, dark place. All I could do was hurt. I was hurting others; I couldn't stop, and I couldn't stop seeing the worst whenever I closed my eyes. My husband's hands, cold from shoveling snow, would transport me back to the ICU, to a different kind of cold. It was awful.
The first light bulb blew 48 hours later.
I drove through the night to my hometown. I arrived at my parents' house at 4 a.m., flipped on the light in the kitchen, and flinched as it popped. Huh. Coincidence.
But then.., every single light bulb blew in my childhood bedroom blew within a week of the funeral- some lights before, some after. Twice as I cried on the bed in the weeks after; the overhead remote-controlled light in our bedroom freaked out with buzzing. The first time, nothing- not flicking light switches, hitting the remote nor changing its batteries- nothing short of physically removing the glass fixture and unscrewing the lightbulb could stop it. The second time, I blew my nose, laughed through my tears and said out loud, "I'm okay, I'm okay." Joel said, "No really, she is" and THEN the buzzing stopped.
My mom jokingly asked me to tell Brad we got the message, because lights kept blowing in my childhood home, including the one 20 feet over the front porch, and it was starting to get inconvenient, what with all the ladder-climbing outdoors in January. I laughed it off, but privately, I passed on the message. No more lightbulbs blew out for months. Until Easter, when we were all together for the holiday meal and egg hunt. Okaaay...
Unfortunately, my extended family went through yet another loss earlier this month. I sat silently beside my mom and dad at the funeral, sending my sister a mental message as she sat in the front pew beside her husband, his mom and sister and brother-in-law. I'm holding you up; I'm holding you up. I beamed to the front pew. I'm holding you up.
Father Bob, the man who married my sister, had the painful task of burying her father-in-law exactly five years later to the day. He's the best priest I've ever met. Eloquent, thoughtful. Bring it on, Father Bob, I thought. Help us. Help them. Help it not hurt like this. Help me reconcile the doctrine on this one. He took a long pause as trains pulled in and out of the station next to the church. I switched my gaze back to the front pew. I'm holding you up.
And then he did it. Father Bob did. He gave his homily on a parable from the Book of Luke. The passage sums up one of Jesus' sermons. The biblical text says that the children of God should be like loyal servants waiting for their master to come home from a wedding feast. Whether Father Bob realized it was Amanda and Tom's wedding anniversary or not, I don't know. "Keep the lamps burning," Jesus said. The servants should be loyally waiting, no matter the hour, to welcome the man of the house when he comes home from a wedding. But then, in the parable, when the master *does *come home, tired though he might be, instead of allowing his servants to wait on him, take his cloak, etc. He puts on the apron and waits on THEM." That is how much God loves his loyal servants, Father Bob said.** He sees their loyalty, their exhaustion, and in his mercy and graciousness, He asks them to sit, and then He takes care of them.
**I'm not doing a great job of paraphrasing this, but then that's fitting, because I remember Tom's father once telling me that he used to volunteer to visit the elderly and sick in their parish. He would bring them communion and try to paraphrase that week's homily. Father Bob was just so good, Roger said, that you almost can't do it justice.
And then Father Bob said, "Some people, when it's their time to pass, God lifts them into his arms and says, 'Come to Me.' Others fall into God's arms. He holds out His arms and says, 'Come here. I've got you. Come here.'"
When it came time for the sign of peace, I thought of Brad, who always used to flash me the peace sign from the Pl0tner's regular pew at St. John Neumann's. Give me a sign, I thought. Let us know he's alright. Oh, go on. I teased. Blow out a lightbulb.
We drove from the church in tandem, my parents in their car following mine. "Your tailight is out," my dad said. "Jesus, AGAIN?!?" I had one replaced in October when I got my car inspected. The other one blew out, perhaps not surprisingly, in the end of December. Add it to the To Do list, I thought. My dad and I have this ritual, where he offers to give me traveling money whenever we part after a visit. After the funeral, he handed me an extra $10 said, "Get your tail light fixed, would ya?"
I finally got around to it yesterday. "An oil change, please, with synthetic oil. Oh, and one of my windshield wipers is wonky, and my tail light is out." The mechanic grunts and takes my keys.
"Ma'am, which tail light was out?" The passenger side, why?
"None of your bulbs are blown." Really? Because my Dad said.... well, maybe it was a brake light? Or the turn signal? My dad saw it was out during a funeral procession; I had my flashers on. Maybe one of those?
"Look, lady, I'd be happy to take your $11 and tell you it's fixed, but none of the bulbs are burned out. I don't know what your father saw, but everything is fine now."
Not quite. But we'll get there.