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How the Monk’s Assignment Healed Their Grief
Once there was a couple who lived in a quiet, pleasant community. Their home was situated not far from town. It was surrounded by trees and flowering brush, and on one side of the home, where the stairway down to the ground level stood, a babbling creek edged the home’s border.
Frank and Miri had a spirited daughter, their only child, who was their greatest joy.
Frannie was about to become a bride. The groom-to-be, Ryan, had been her childhood sweetheart. The two had known each other since first grade.
As the wedding approached, Frank worked on an ornate headboard that would be one of his gifts to the couple. Meanwhile, Miri put the final touches on a spectacular bridal gown, fit for a queen.
Their home was filled with Frannie’s constant chatter, as she recounted her plans for the future. From one moment to the next, she would weave outlines of when and where she and Ryan would travel, of how hard they would work, and what fun things they would do, both before and after their three kids were born.
These were immensely happy days. Frannie’s girl friends would visit and make jokes about how odd it was that she had “hooked” Ryan, despite her funny and bizarrely shaped feet.
Her friend Kate remarked: “You have to admit it, Frannie, you’ve made a catch beyond belief. We’d love to know your secret, Fran. Just tell us how you have done this.”
Her friend Lissa also piped up: “Ryan is more than you deserve. Possibly more than any woman could deserve. You had a lucky star or two shining above you on the day he proposed.”
Frannie chortled. “My method is no secret. Look at my ugly toes and feet. They define me for what I truly am: a witch! I’m surprised you haven’t guessed that I “caught” Ryan by use of one of my witchiest spells. For just a small amount of money, I’ll be glad to write out this spell so you can use it on your boyfriends too.”
In response, the girls cackled as though they were all witches born and bred. Miri laughed herself, thinking how appalled the priest serving them communion might feel if they knew the witchiness of these young women. (Even though it clearly was playful.)
A half-hour later, Miri wondered how it was that her daughter’s feet were considered odd and ugly. Perhaps it was some in-joke the girls alone had an explanation for.
She knew better than to ask, though. Most girls in their late teens were reluctant to explain the jests they shared with their comrades-in-arms.
As Miri returned to do the details on the wedding gown bodice, she could only muse on how much fun it was to have these good times happening. She glanced over at Frank, who was engaged in polishing the fireplace mantel. She could detect how he had enjoyed the banter of the young women as much as she had.
Then only three nights before the wedding, Frannie announced that she was taking off to make a trip to Ryan’s house. “I just want to make sure he’s not engaged in some plan to shake off the coming ball and chain.”
“Be home before dark, Sweetie,” Miri called out. But the door had shut before Frannie might have heard her.
And Miri went to the back part of the house, to look in a drawer for the piece of embroidery that would be the finishing touch on the bodice.
Neither parent heard Frannie’s feet dance down the stairway. Nor did they know of the moment when on the second to the very last stair, her left foot hit an acorn, and her body inexplicably flew into the air. The young woman sailed over the small patch of grass that lay between the stairs and the creek. Then her body plunged into the creek, where face down and injured by the fall, Frannie drowned.
This all had happened to Frannie so quickly that she did not even scream out. One moment she was very much alive, and then the next moment she was still very much alive, but no longer of this earth.
Hours later, when Frank found her body, the couple began their descent into a nightmare.
He and Miri recovered the body together. They were, of course, in quite a state of shock.
The body in the creek barely resembled Frannie’s. For one thing, the young woman had never been known to grimace, and on this face, there was this awful grimace. And it was set in stone.
For another, even in her sleep, Frannie remained in constant motion. Her eyelids flickering while her mouth moved from faintest grin to full and open smile.
Even when asleep, she gave up a soft cooing sound, like a dove on a nest above a passel of tiny eggs.
But this body was motionless, and silent.
Her parents were unaccepting of the death. To them, it seemed like their Frannie had been kidnapped, stolen out from under them just three days before her wedding to Ryan.
Who would have taken her? Who could explain the injustice of this abduction?
Yes, this was not a death, but a kidnapping. Someone out there had their daughter. They believed in each of their shocked and traumatized hearts that some evil person held her.
But surely that individual would let down his guard and then Frannie would escape to come home to them, and to Ryan and to her friends.
To conform to what was expected of them, they buried the body in full embrace of the burial ritual. There was a wake and a funeral. In a most wooden manner, they offered thank you’s to the guests attending the wake, the funeral, and the burial itself. They knew better than to let on that this really was not their girl.
So the couple waited, for two separate things. On the one hand, they waited for Frannie to return home to them.
On the other hand, they waited for the huge overbearing mass of stone-iness that their hearts, minds and bodies had all become to somehow, some way, begin to thaw and then to melt.
But melt into what?
They certainly did not expect their stone-iness to melt into grief, because what was there to grieve? Frannie had been abducted.
No way could they grieve for her death. She was alive but somewhere else.
And they just had to wait it out until she would finally return.
As late spring became summer, Miri finally admitted that grief had taken hold of her.
Both she and her spouse quit doing their daily routines. Routines, including eating and changing clothes each day, fell aside of the daily pattern. All they could do at this point was lay about for endless hours in bed, feeling the pain of the serrated edges of grief twist inside their very beings.
Eventually they moved from their bed to the living room couch. A huge sheet had been hung over the headboard that was 99% finished. Only occasionally did one or the other of them re-imagine the beauty of that finished piece.
So they sat on the couch, staring at this tarp, not moving, not talking, hardly even breathing.
Rarely did they even touch one another. Rather, they just sat.
Then one day, Miri became a center of manic activity. Although her body had little say in it, it was propelled through time and space to organize the pantry, to scrub the kitchen’s linoleum tiles, to repaint the cupboards and repair Frannie’s favorite chipped and cracked mug.
Then she moved on to carefully ripping the wedding gown into six pieces, silky fabric pieces that she would fashion into christening gowns for the community’s next born infants.
While Miri whirlwinded through these assignments, Frank sat stoically poking at the innards of the fireplace. On chilly summer mornings, when the air was thick with fog, he would poke away at the embers from the fire now dying out.
But even on oppressively hot afternoons, he sat poking at the cold still embers, as if poking them could return them magically to life.
One moment, Miri would feel so bad for him. And then moments later, she felt only cold hard anger. How dare he treat his daughter’s end differently than she did!
Then one morning, Miri woke up and decided that somehow, something in her life must change.
She remembered how in her community there was a wise monk whom so many people consulted when living their lives had become too hard. Miri made up her mind to seek him out.
She dashed off a quick note informing her still sleeping spouse that she had gone off to find the monk. Then she packed up a small rucksack that had belonged to Frannie, tossed a summer sweater over her clothes, and set off.
At first she was bedazzled by the brightness of the great outdoors. But just a short while later, the same shadowy darkness that had filtered all light out from inside their grieving home now tamped down the brightness of the sun and the colors of reality.
So she found herself walking through the local town, but people seemed to be only drifts of smoke. Children appeared more real, but when they spoke or Lord help her! laugh merrily, then a cold chill ran up her spine.
“Why enjoy anyone or anything, if it will only be ripped away?” said an anguished voice inside her.
So that became her approach when the meadow path leading to the monk’s cave burst apart in wave after wave of summer wild flowers. She would look at the flowers and could only see grey. The birds and precious baby animals also were darkened inside some foul mist.
At last she reached the small grove of trees that hid the monk’s cave. She knew this was what she had been seeking, as a line of 7 other people trailed from the cave’s lip almost clear back out to the meadow.
No one in line said anything. The voice talking to the monk inside the cave as very muffled, so she could make out only the words “How do I deal with such an illness? And why?”
But she could hear no part of the monk’s response.
Finally it was her turn. She entered the cave and felt for a tiny split second that the darkness around her had lifted.
The monk was dressed in saffron robes. He was a young man, almost a teenager. But he stood when she entered, then made his way to the cave entrance as a greeting. His movements suggested a dignified wisdom hiding in his youthful bones.
He led her to a small chair with a pillow, and motioned for her to sit at her ease.
“So tell me why you are here.”
Miri told the whole sorry tale, from start to finish. It began of course with the joy of having Frannie as a baby then child, then being an adolescent and now recently of losing her right before the wedding.
He nodded with sympathy. Then his eyes locked into hers.
The eyes held a universe of nebulae, each birthing a new galaxy of understanding.
“How do you think I can help?”
“I think if you could assign me a task, so at the end of it I won’t be consumed.” She paused.
“By grief,” you mean he added for her.
“Yes by grief. This consummation has to cease.”
“I have such an assignment and I can offer it to you. But it will require dedication and patience.
“Above all you must trust that if you fulfill the assignment, your grief will diminish and become your friend.”
“So you will attempt the task I give to you?”
He then explained that her grief might not ever diminish, at least not until she sought out hundreds of grieving survivors. Her task was to find that one in 10,000 who had a daughter who died a death exactly as the death that her daughter had chosen for her and Frank to survive.
Miri was so enthralled at his words that only later did she realize she had only referred to her husband as her spouse, and never had given the monk his name.
He then asked her to join him in a prayer. She thought surely it would be some mumbo jumbo of a Buddhist chant. (And her conscience sank at realizing her intolerance of another’s faith.)
Then her heart skipped a beat when she found herself joining him in saying out loud “The Our Father.”
Time did a warp drive after that. Somehow or other, she found herself back at her home.
She found Frank still asleep in bed. She fixed a hot breakfast for both of them. It contained a half dozen delicious foods whose existence she had forgotten.
She entered the bedroom and placed the foods on the night table. She woke Frank, handing him a cup of coffee.
Then she recited how they must pray for 3 straight days. After that, they must together set off on their assignment.
Five days later, they were in the thick of their task. On their first day and a half at “the job,” they had already queried many of their neighbors, both those they knew and those whom they had never spent any time bothering about.
At least one third of those queried had a survivor’s tale. The first story of what would become many was that of the brother-in-law of the man who was to oversee their small home while they made way on their journey.
The brother-in-law recounted how his son had joined the army, only to be killed in a major battle.
“Since he died when he was away, and yes, I know this sounds crazy, but I still expect him to show up, with a medal or two on his uniform and a bunch of tales to tell.”
But the couple understood and told him that to them it did not at all sound crazy.
The man fidgeted around for a back pocket and then took out his wallet. “Here’s a note one of the men in his unit sent me. Would you mind if I took your time to read it to you?”
Frank and Miri both nodded. And Miri said “Please!”
The worn slip of paper was unfolded. “Your son took a group of us raw overgrown spoiled children and turned us into soldiers. He didn’t live through that horrendous battle which descended on us like a night out of hell.
“But because of him, we lived to fight again. Eventually we have all returned home to be with our families and friends. I thought you might need to know this.”
The soldier’s father wiped away his tears with the back of his hand. “I hope my story helps you. If not today, maybe someday soon.”
“We hope that too, sir.” So Frank, who had been a military man some decades before, gave a salute. And Miri leaned over and gave a soft kiss on the father’s cheek.
So it went, day in and day out.
They heard the story of the grieving fiancee, whose groom-to-be had been charged with the crime of embezzlement. “Scott’s own father agreed with the bank president, that my dearest had done this atrocious thing. I was the only one who believed in him. And my belief was not enough.”
Both Frank and Miri shuddered, realizing the tragedy of a young man of such promise, hanging himself from a barn rafter. They both shuddered a second time: because of his sweetheart having to be the one to discover the body.
They heard the story of the husband whose wife and two children had died in the train crash five years earlier.
They heard the story of a teenager whose soul mate was her darling of a grandmother. But the older woman had gotten pneumonia and died a week before the girl’s long anticipated 16th birthday.
They heard the story of the mechanic who one Friday had been in a hurry to get out of his shop. He had hurried through his last job of the day. He had left a lug bolt on a back tire far too loose. The driver, the mother of four, had crashed the very next day when driving on a hilly winding curve.
“It has been hard to wake up each morning and face the mirror. I keep my shop open now on Saturdays and give that money each month to the surviving husband and his kids.”
Frank and Miri murmured some heart felt words about how he needed to forgive himself and that it was not a small thing that he was taking responsibility as well as making retribution.
Yet inside them, even as they offered condolences to these survivors, was the insistence that nagged at them. Each time they heard yet another story, they found themselves wishing, “Why couldn’t your story have involved a daughter who danced down the stairs and met her death by acorn on the second to the last stair?”
After all, until that tale was told, they would not be released from their own cloud of despair.
And so they trudged on.
Finally summer faded into autumn. Leaves fell around them. Each brightly colored tribute was a reminder of human lives that so endlessly fall from the Tree of Life, regardless of the season of the year.
As winter approached, they turned around to make their way home.
Once back inside, they felt a subtle shift in the place.
The house was a tiny bit brighter. The warmth of the fireplace was now felt by their tired bones. When they looked at each other, they realized that their spouse had a bit more color in their cheeks, a bit more life in their eyes.
But their beings still felt the need for release.
Sooner than they would have believed possible, spring surrounded them. Once again they made arrangements for a neighbor to watch over their home.
Once again, they took to the road.
On the day that marked the one year anniversary of Frannie’s death, they tried to pay special attention to the stories told to them. But Miri sprained her ankle, and they quit just a few moments after that. They holed up in a hotel, trying to pretend the day held no special meaning.
By noon the next day, they were back bearing witness to all the many survivors whose stories of death and loss still needed telling.
Some months went by, and again they returned home for the winter.
This was now a routine. They no longer even sought release from it. Just as a chained animal quits whimpering to be let free to run the yard, they accepted without question what their lot in life had become.
Some months and a year later, they were about to go off to a hostel where the lodging was cheap and a warm meal was served, included in the price.
On the way into the hotel’s office, a huge brute of a man blocked their way.
“You might not remember me, I’m a man you talked to back in the summer of ’78.”
The couple knew him the moment they heard his voice.
“Anyway, I am so grateful you let me describe how my brother died in my arms after a hit and run while we were out hitch hiking. You let me describe not only his death but his whole life. And you explained why you are on the road.” He paused, still looking like someone who had lost a loved one only a moment earlier.
“There is someone I want you to meet. If you would permit it, I’d have them drop by here, once you are settled in.”
Frank looked a tiny bit annoyed. He had sent much of the day longing for bed, but one look at Miri told him to reach into his center and man up.
“We’d like that,” the couple said.
So an hour later a woman showed up outside their small room.
“Would you come with me?” she pleaded. The urgency was something they could not put off. “Yes we will follow you,” Frank and Miri replied.
She led them out of town. Just as the sun was setting, she stopped in front of a small hill.
Then she pointed. “Up that driveway is my home. And on the stairway leading to the main house, that is where my daughter died.”
The couple followed her up the driveway. The house that this woman claimed as hers could have been the twin to their own. Frank felt his stomach lurch about in his body. Miri felt her knees go weak.
“See the stairs? Sally came down those stair, skipping along like a school kid. I was at the bottom of the driveway, talking to a friend. We’d been talking about Sally’s wedding, which was only three days away.
But as she stepped off the bottom stair, an arrow sliced through the air, hitting her in the back of her neck. She fell to the ground and died seconds later.”
“An arrow?” asked Miri. “How did that get explained?
“The woods behind and next to my house is just to one side of a forest preserve where hunting is allowed. A hunter thought his arrow would hit a buck he’d been chasing. But the arrow missed the deer. It traveled much further than physics should have allowed for. My Sally became its…” Her voice trailed off before she could say “victim.”
Frank and Miri could imagine this young vibrant woman, a cosmic twin of their own daughter. They could easily visualize her as she had been dancing her way down the stairs. They could imagine in every detail the grimace on the corpse’s face, the shock and reverberations of that shock as the woman had to cope with this tragedy.
The couple leaned into her and the three people began an embrace that rivaled the intensity of stars imploding.
They held on to each other as if they let go, they all would cease to exist.
And all three began to cry. The three cried as if one body, just cried and cried. The tears spilled out – so many years of pent up tears that until now had never known release.
Frank and Miri knew that this story was not the exact story that the monk had stated that they had been meant to hear. However, although it was not identical, it was as near to identical as could ever be expected.
At the same moment, they realized that each and every survivor’s tale had been a tale that they had been meant to hear as well.
As all three people continued their hold on to each other, as their tears continued to flow, Frank and Miri re-lived every story that had crossed their paths. They fully saw not only the deaths that had been described, but suddenly they gained knowledge of every moment of each fatality’s most important and least important events.
A baby’s first step. A toddler’s first scraped knee. Some schoolyard injustice. A college paper that was given accolades.
A soldier creating a way to train his men.
A young man’s despair at being abandoned by his father.
A grandma working too hard in her garden in the cold and the rain.
A mother’s decision to take the kids on a train ride through the mountains.
They re-visited all the deaths and all the heroically determined survivals of those who were left behind.
Once again, Frank and Miri saw all the grieving individuals’ tears and fears.
They noticed too each person’s attempt to announce a smile with their mouths, even if it came out only as the smallest bit of slightly puckered lips. They realized the smile attempts were a way to broadcast, “We are coming to terms with this” in a forever fight against despair, in a fight where the survivor’s bleeding heart reveals itself as battered, broken and shattered. Yet still alive.
When the three bodies separated, all three felt better.
Now there was quite a bit of space inside their souls where the tears had once blocked other emotions.
Now that space was freed up for each of these three people.
In the weeks ahead, that space began to fill with memories, happy memories of the daughters lost to them.
With the memories came gratitude. There were now some days when the gratitude eased the pain.
Sometimes the pain was less for a day, or a week or a month.
It now became okay for them to hurt on days when they did hurt. The hurt, after all, was an indication that they had received the gift of having been given someone to love.
Copyright Carol Sterritt 2023Published in General