All Souls Day
“Look out the window,” my wife said.
It was a Sunday afternoon. I had my dates mixed up, and there was an early evening Halloween party in the works. All of the Riley grandchildren and cousins and little people friends were gathering for a hayride. I’m telling you it was a grand concourse of small people out of nowhere. My grandsons, Peter and Bo, were running around as white-bearded gnomes with a pointy red hats. My granddaughter Margot was brooding off by herself on the lawn. (I learned later that she had insisted on being both a vampire and a princess at the same time, and she was miffed that ruby lips and fangs were hard to paint.) My teenage niece, McKenzie, was casually dressed as some sort of unicorn, and she was holding my grandson, Clark, in her arms, who looked for all the world like an infant tough guy Kiefer Sutherland in “Lost Boys.”
The farm is a sleepy place on Sundays, since we’re closed to the public, so it felt something like a sudden convocation of fairies. My wife wanted me to see it before I missed it.
It’s easy to do. I believe in original sin, but children represent a kind of flawless biological perfection, our puppy state, before we mess ourselves up with worry and gluttony and envy. They also represent enormous faith. They have no reason to believe anything but what their parents have told them — that the night will be full of candy and punch. And perhaps most touching, I don’t think they see age. You may be 57 and they may be four, but they have no generational pride yet. My grandson Peter enjoys my company. When he has to leave for the evening, and I can no longer command Google images to display zebras and monkeys, he holds my neck and shouts “no, no, no, no!”
How many friends do you have, in the real world, quite like that?
If I had to name, though, what I think binds us when we consider our children, it seems to be “potential.” Whenever we watch them, as adults, we’re celebrating their place in the story, their unrealized and vastly hopeful potential. I don’t just mean career or life potential, either; I mean their capacity to enjoy the story of life itself. I put ear phones on one of my grandchildren a year or two ago, and played a symphony for him. When you see the kid’s eyes widen, and he smiles at the harmonies, aren’t you seeing a lifetime of concerts in his future? The first time he holds a girl’s hand at a dance? Aren’t you introducing him to a new part of the theme park we call life and saying, “you haven’t seen this yet; it’s pretty cool. I’ll meet you back here when it’s time to go home.”
I think, if we’re honest, we both celebrate that gift, and lament its passing. I know grown men who have confessed to me they still feel something like their fifth grade picture. We don’t ever give up, willingly, the desire to be new, to stand at the doorway of the concert hall and hear the music for the first time again.
My father once turned the pages of a family album with me and pondered a picture of my mother.
“See how beautiful she was,” he said.
It certainly didn’t feel like a slight to my mother, who was still living at the time. It felt like the observation of a man so intensely grateful for his life that he never wanted it to end, that he wouldn’t mind playing the record another million times.
I’m tempted to write that I count my sorrow, at aging, as a measure of small faith, but I also think we’re meant to learn something from this sorrow. As I wrote yesterday, when Jesus entered the little town of Bethany and He learned that His friend had died, He wept. The Great Lord High King of the Universe–the One with power over life and death–wept. Jesus Christ of Nazareth wept! Aging and death are not meant to be without pain, even for God as man. The pain is teaching us something. That sorrow you feel at the picture of children who will never be five again is a kind of small death, a bittersweet reminder that it’s all terribly short, that we’re grass in the field, green and flowering one day, and gone the next. The prom is over. You graduated. Your last grandchild is married.
It hurts, life does. It hurts, because it’s so damn beautiful.