The mother of a friend is dying as I write this.
I have a bit of survivor guilt; the Adversary is good at fostering that and I am easy prey. This gracious and gentle woman, in dreadful pain from her own illness, offered up her suffering for mine and my groom during our recent health scare. And of course, my beloved is well and safe, and the lovely Helen is slipping from our midst.
I am present with her at a distance, in prayers and thoughts and small gifts and notes, in daily rosaries and chaplets. This afternoon, I took a break and prayed the Stations of the Cross, listening to a recitation on iTunes (complete with Stabat Mater in Latin) as I walked around the second-floor balcony of a nearby building. I know from experience that standing with Mary at the foot of the cross is the best place to be at times like this. Helen would agree.
Unfortunately, praying the stations by myself almost always demands my closing my eyes to shut out distractions and really enter into the prayer when I am not in a church where I can see the stations as I pray. Closing my eyes, I find, is somewhat difficult to do while walking. Small obstacles like doors and walls and pillars and stairwells tend to get in my way and I am graceless enough with both eyes open. I resigned myself to distractions as I made one circuit, two, three, almost four for the first two stations.
Then it dawned on me that there was one stretch that was without doors or pillars or other risks to life and limb: just one long expanse of railing topped with smooth and rounded oak to keep the unwary from tumbling into the atrium below. Perhaps if I put my hand on the rail and closed my eyes, I might be able to concentrate better. There were no others walking ahead of me, the aisle was clear and empty and straight as an arrow. I put my hand on the polished oak, closed my eyes and turned the corner.
And was immediately overcome with fear. Even though I knew there was nothing in my way and no way for me to fall, my steps became instinctively timid and my heart raced and I thought of Helen and offered it back up for her. I forced myself to concentrate on the words pouring into my ears and thought about her family and her dying and refused either to stop or to open my eyes until I felt the bend in the railing that meant I had reached the end. So it was for a good many laps, my heart racing as I intentionally put my hand on the rail and stubbornly closed my eyes, concentrating on the prayers and refusing to count the steps to gain the knowledge that would permit my scientist mind to measure out the anxiety. Slowly, my pace picked back up and before too long, I was walking as briskly with closed eyes as I did with open ones.
As briskly, but not as comfortably. It took a few more laps before my heart decided that doing a rumba in my chest was going to be ignored and settled back into something like a regular beat. I made another lap, and another, listening intently to the words of the devotion, afraid that if I did not, I’d slip back into fear when it came time to close my eyes again; thinking of the fear that I know all too well Helen’s family tastes. Fear that she will die too soon; fear that she will suffer too much, fear that they, somehow, will not be able to live without her presence. Thinking of my friend and her mother and her sisters and brothers and son, finally getting lost in the meditation somewhere between Simon’s reluctant embrace of the cross and Veronica's veil.
Once I did, something else crept in: an awareness that was lost to me with my eyes open. I came to know the contours of the oak railing, smooth to the sight, but marked with tiny bumps and seams and the rough grain of the wood that could be felt even through the varnish. I could anticipate the curve that signaled the end, not because I counted my steps, but because there was the slightest shadow from one of the windows, not appreciated with my eyes, but felt on my face in my voluntary darkness. I found myself opening my eyes with a bit of reluctance as I now turned that corner, having grown used to the rhythm of my walk, the rhythms of the prayers and the sense that I was, somehow, a part of the bedside vigil half a continent away, part of the family of a woman I haven’t seen for thirty-odd years.
The Twelfth Station came to silence as I started my walk on the wall opposite what I now thought of as my “blind walk.” There was no one else walking the circuit by then (probably out of fear of this crazy woman walking with her eyes closed), so I put my hand on that rail and paced out the silence in the dark. Learn how to follow the railing on one side of the room and you can manage it elsewhere too, it turns out.
Walking in the dark with confidence is hard and it takes practice. Even when the mind argues that it is perfectly safe, closing one’s eyes and moving ahead without the usual signposts is difficult indeed and it sets the heart to racing. It takes an act of both will and submission to keep moving, not to be afraid, to settle in and learn to experience all that the darkness has to offer, things missed in the light.
Sitting at the foot of the cross, at the beside of a loved one even at one remove is a walk in the dark. It takes practice and it is difficult and it is frightening and there is every temptation to abandon the effort even when there is nowhere else to go. But with willing submission, there is something to be learned that would not be otherwise; the shadows are fleeting and the sun is still warm and we are all of us, Helen and those at her bedside, safe in our journey---even if we can’t see what lies ahead just this very minute.