Brilliance in the Dark
“The old, the young, the rich or poor
All alike to me you know
No wealth, no land, no silver no gold
Nothing satisfies me but your soul
O, Death, O, Death
Won’t you spare me over til another year”
– Traditional Appalachian Folk Song
We hunger to hold on. We hunger for firmer ground. We hunger for life. Death ignores our hungers. It flings us into the chasm of loss and blasts open the doorway to the heart of life. The blinding brilliance of love flashes, a gift in the darkness of grief.
I opened the front door. “Yes?” I said, puzzled by what I saw. Moments before I had heard heavy footfalls clump up the cedar steps of the porch. The muffled thuds jarred the quiet of the house and jolted me out of the haze of grief that hung in my heart. The interruption to my slow-motion existence wrenched me out of unanswerable questions. Why? Why this? Why now? Why? I had peered, unsteady and cautious, through the long thin windowpane, the sidelight, beside the door.
Men, maybe seven or eight of them, looked back at me, solemn, silent, and respectful. They gripped shovels that were rusty and well-used, caked with mud. I wondered why they carried shovels. It was cold, below zero, and their breathing vaporized in the frigid air.
The cadre of men wore the work uniform of the mountains, crusty overhauls bunched up over scuffed, heavy boots. Their jackets hugged them like down bunting drawn over their plaid flannel shirts which were visible at the neck. Most had hoods pulled over baseball or stocking caps. Most were bearded. Some wore gloves.
Behind them, leaden metallic grey paint had been poured over the sky. It dripped thick, heavy like a bowl, over the flat of land midway up the isolated hollow in West Virginia, where our house stood. The trees, stick figures on the hills, wore their stark winter nakedness. Snow and ice mixed with frozen mud pretended to be a driveway.
I remember the men. I remember them in tintype, muted shades of service brown. I remember them as poignant, gospel notes. I remember them as a plaintive folk lament. I remember them as remnants of an age when death was less sanitized, less removed, and more collective. I remember them as kindness, waiting.
I was in shock, assaulted by a loss that had come without warning. I stood in my wool socks on the peach marble tile, my robe cinched around my waist. The white doorway was still festooned with holiday garland. Three electric candles glowed in the semi-circle window above the door. A small red velvet Christmas bow had fallen off the garland and lay in the corner, disregarded, its wire fastening frayed at the edges.
“We’ve come to dig your husband’s grave,” said one. I recognized him, but not the others. He lived in the tidy, small cottage painted periwinkle blue about a half mile down Sycamore, the winding hard road at the bottom of our hill.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “We’re your neighbors,” he said. “This is what we do in these parts. We bury our dead.”
Our dead, he had said. Our dead. We were of this place. We were of these mountains. We had been outsiders from the city, but, now, we belonged. We shared the pain of this loss. It had touched all.
When I found my voice, I explained that the grave was a mile up the hill. My brother-in-law and his son had begun to dig it the day before. Two shovelfuls in, they hit a hibernating turtle.
While living as a missionary priest in the Philippine Islands, my husband had cultivated a reverence for sea turtles. They were his “amakua”, his spirit animal. The turtle is revered by the indigenous as a symbol of Mother Earth, of protecting the vulnerable and of peace. The symbolism fit my husband to a “T.”
Imprints of the turtle swam across his pullover shirts. They meandered across his desk. He was an addictions counselor. His clients knew of his love for turtles and had given them as small gifts to thank him for his kindness, his acceptance of their frailties, his freedom from judgment born of his own successful struggle to stay sober.
We, his family, took the finding of the turtle as a message from Jim. We took it to mean, “yes, bury me here, here on this ridge that bows to the gentle rolling hills. Bury me under this carpet of curled brown leaves where I can hear the mountain breezes that I love. Bury me in this spot, yes, where I can lay down my body and let my bones join the land that made its home in my soul.”
Setting the turtle aside with care, my family members had continued digging. Then they hit rock. Glaciers had pushed rocks around Appalachia like pebbles and left them everywhere. The funeral home sent someone to bust the rock out with dynamite.
I explained to the men on my porch holding their shovels that the grave was nearly completed.
“We’ll finish the digging, M’am” their leader said. The others said not a word. They tipped their shovels. They tipped the beaks of their hats. They tipped their eyes. They tipped their hearts. They turned to climb the hill to the holy.
After the funeral service days later, mourners sought refuge from the deep cold in the warmth of my husband’s sister’s home just yards from the grave site in the middle of the woods.
While we shared a pot-luck meal and sipped warm tea, a neighbor who had loved Jim slipped back into the cold. She asked the funeral directors to let her finish closing the grave. She shoveled the last of the dirt over my husband’s body, smoothed the mound and arranged a grave blanket and flower baskets on top of it. It was a labor of love, she said.
When I saw the site later, in a halo of light that filtered through the trees as the sun hesitated, just for a moment, before it slipped beyond the horizon, the grave glowed with an uncommon beauty. A flash of brilliance lit the darkness. We have pictures of this moment. Some people say they can see Jim’s face in the pictures, hovering in an orb right over the flowers. He rests, still, in so much love.
Collective sharing of grief heals us.
Collective burial of the dead knits us as the family of humanity.
Collective comfort uplifts us.
Collective courage to embrace our time on this earth once and always as
a dance with death,
a dance with a cycle of renewal
a dance with transformation
poises us, together, raw, at the
doorway to the heart of life.
Copyright 2020, Linda Sandel Pettit, Ed.D.
Dr. Linda Sandel Pettit, a priestess-at-heart and retired counseling psychologist, can be found at www.thedrspettit.com. She loves putting her intuitive nature, spiritual understanding and clinical experience in service to others. She is available for on-line consultations via Zoom or by phone. For information about fees and packages, visit BOOK NOW. For more information or to request fee assistance, email Linda