A little thing, a poem, a cross

It’s a little thing, this cross on a chain that I have worn now for almost four years. A friend of mine said once that of all the people to wear a cross on a chain, I am the last one people who know me would expect. She said this, I think, because she knows I’m not a christian and am suspicious of easy symbols that aren’t grounded in a heartfelt, sincere, “authentic” reality. It’s not that I don’t respect the importance of symbols hanging from rear view mirrors–mine sports a butterfly–or that cheap, store-bought trinkets can’t be beautiful in the context of someone’s personal sacred space–I appreciate and honor anyone’s private use of symbols. I also recognize the beauty and spirituality of public symbols in holy and sacred spaces. A Guadalupe candle, a little Buddha, a rose. (Please no hearts, though, especially ones that are broken.)

This cross on my silver chain does not mean what most crosses on silver chains mean.

My cousin wears a white dove on a silver chain. She’s worn it since her mother died of cancer many years ago, in her loyal care. She says she hasn’t taken it off since. I only take mine off when I’m preparing for a massage, or the doctor says so. For my cousin, the dove is a spiritual symbol, a sign of her belief in the possibility of communication between this physical world and the world beyond. Her mother’s presence always there, against her breastbone.

My cross is more of a medium, like the dove, since it belonged to my son, who wore it for its more expected reasons. He was a spiritually searching person, who was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church, became a Muslim for a short time, then returned to Christianity. At eighteen he was reading Edith Stein’s Science of the Cross, underlining passages in the Bible, writing poem-prayers.

On retreat at Gethsemani Abbey, age 18

On retreat at Gethsemani Abbey, age 18

I’m reminded of the good-luck pebble that the Lieutenant Cross carried under his tongue, in Tim O’Brien’s great story “The Things They Carried.” It’s a beautiful symbol for his loneliness, I think, which he mistakes as longing for Martha, who has written him though they don’t know each other well. The pebble, carried in that warm place, is both a distraction from the dangers of war and a kind of reminder of their humanity, perhaps even their wish just to be happy.

Some few days or weeks after Casey was shot, we found his cross on the floor of the sun room, where it had come off during the night. I placed it on a red string that had been blessed by the Dalai Lama, and put it around my neck.

Blessed by the Dalai Lama

The cross is cool this morning
as I lean forward and it falls
against my left breast.
I will warm it there
the pretty silver T on a red string
blessed by the Dalai Lama.

We found it where you slept one night
when you must have turned and pulled
the silver chain until it snapped.

I try to see you as you must have looked
the night we lost you,
the moments it took for the bullet to enter
your shoulder and ricochet off your rib
and pierce your lung and heart and lodge against your rib.

Such a great spiritual leader—surely
his blessed string could have entered you,
could have retraced the path of anger
could have threaded its way
back, back, back
and closed the unnecessary hole
could have pulled the metallic smell of absence out.

At the time, the surreal nature of reality led to my imagining the impossible–ways that something so final could perhaps be undone. Now it seems, from the vantage point of nearly four years, that retracing to heal, closing the wound, pulling out some lingering “smell” is still what I think the Dalai Lama or someone like him could do if only . . . Or maybe all this threading is what we’re doing ourselves on this long road towards . . . recovery and recovering our beloved.

What is the smell of absence? Usually it’s more a sound, a booming silence. A smell, they say, is the most lasting of senses, the one tied most closely to memory. What is the smell of this absence, and is it still metallic, the smell of a heated bullet?

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