By S.L. Woodford
There are many times when I cannot pray, when I am too tired to read the gospels, too restless to have spiritual thoughts, too depressed to find words for God, or too exhausted to do anything. But I can still look at these images so intimately connected with the experience of love.
—Henri J.M. Nouwen, Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons
It is 5 a.m. and I’m texting, lying on my back in my darkened bedroom. I just got off the phone with my brother. My mother had died, not even two hours before, on my family’s living-room floor. That was in Ohio. I am in Connecticut, texting my closest friends. The single light in the darkness is my phone, bathing me in a soft halo of bluish white as my thumbs flip through letters, numbers, and symbols. I punch:
My mom just died. I thought I should let you know. To fill up the space, to feel less alone, I begin to sob.
Do I fall asleep? I can’t say for sure. But birds chirp, the sun shines, and my eyes feel puffy. My mother died. I should do something. I sit down at my desk. Propped behind my pen jar leans a postcard, a marble relief of an angel. The figure kneels in prayer as the morning sun, shining from unseen stained- glass windows, sweeps around her — saturating her robes in violet and fuchsia, cloaking her fingers in tangerine and gold. The chaos of color doesn’t seem to distract her, though. Eyes closed, head bowed, and hands clasped, she connects with God.
I turn on my computer screen and log in to Facebook, to find graduate school updates, wedding pictures, and sonograms — a virtual chain of being that ties me, even if superficially, to men and women from childhood, high school, college, and graduate school.
“I can’t believe I lost my mother this morning,” I type. “To never again experience her quiet, thoughtful compassion in the flesh is a pain beyond words; but experiencing her quiet, thoughtful compassion for the past 27 years of my life will always be a joy that transcends words.”
Before I hit the blue Post button, I add a YouTube video of Robin the Frog singing “Halfway Down the Stairs.” One of my earliest memories was watching that clip with my mom. My phone pings and I look to read a text message from my neighbors downstairs.
That’s crazy. We’re getting ready to go. Come down.
A few moments later, I am in my neighbors’ kitchen, sitting at their table as Jane puts socks on their two-year-old son and Eric puts a plate of oatmeal and egg whites in front of me.
In between bites, I tell them what I know. Dad found Mom on the living room floor. She hadn’t been feeling well that weekend, but nothing out of the ordinary. We have no idea what killed her. We will only know more after the autopsy.
“So what are you going to do?” asks Eric. “Are you going back to Ohio?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go for a run first?”
My phone pings again. Another text. Another friend.
Oh love. I just saw your status. I’m so sorry. What do you need? I can take off work.
I text back: Thanks. Right now I need to run. Can I see you in the afternoon?
ok, she replies. Go run and text me afterwards.
I put my phone in my waistband and stoop down. Tennis shoes need two hands for tying. My phone rings. It’s my rector.
“I am so sorry, Sarah,” he says.
“Yeah, I’m sorry too.”
We speak a few more minutes, and he adds: “Let me know if you need anything. I will check in with you soon.”
My run through New Haven is bleary and detached. The only evidence that I went on one is the sweat on my upper lip and a slightly euphoric feeling from endorphins when I return to my front porch. Sitting white and square on the landing is a paper bag. I pick it up and open it to find two breakfast sandwiches and a large coffee inside. My phone pings.
I left you breakfast. xoxoxo.
After my shower, I glance over at the computer, still open to my Facebook page. There are red flags over the small envelope and tiny globe on the toolbar. Friends and acquaintances from high school, college, and graduate school are already sending their condolences. A dear Jewish friend promises to say Kaddish for my mother the following Sabbath.
My phone pings: five new text messages and two voicemails.
I glance up and left, where the marble angel crouches in perpetual prayer. Eyes closed, she is oblivious to the jewel- toned business around her. In her self-induced darkness she finds God.
On my walk downtown, a former roommate calls. “When I saw your Facebook message, I started crying,” she says. “If you need anything when you’re back in Ohio, remember I’m in Chicago, only a drive away.”
“Thank you. It’s so good to hear your voice. I’m just sorry it’s under these circumstances.”
I hear a beep, and move the phone from ear to eye: another text message.
Where do you want to meet?
I quickly finish with my Chicago friend, and look up to see where I am. Mannequins in 1960s tailoring stare back at me.
At The Vintage Exchange, I type.
I walk into the store, past the beautiful china displays dripping with artistic angles, around mounds of kitchen supplies lacquered by bold color, into the vintage clothing room, draped in diverse textures. I run my hands over the racked rows: brown tweeds, velvet greens, and polyester yellows. My phone pings:
I’m at the front of the store.
Before I can text back, my friend’s arms are around me.
While I’m sitting in my friend’s living room, my brother calls. Shortly thereafter, my aunt calls. I’m heading back to Ohio that evening. My aunt will pick me up from the airport and my brother will take me over to my grandmother’s house. It works out well. During my time in Ohio, I shall keep my 93-year-old grandmother company and not have to sleep in the place my mother died.
I look at my friend. “I need to pack” is all I manage to say.
The walk back to my apartment is hot and quiet. As we move across town, we get caught in a swarm of black. Only then do I remember that today is Yale’s graduation. Young men and women sweep around us. As they pass, I see master’s and doctoral hoods, a motley of reds, blues, and pinks dancing on their backs. For a moment, I feel dazzled, overwhelmed. I close my eyes and bow my head. In the darkness, my phone vibrates inside my clasped hands.
I am here, it says. I am praying for you.
I am sobbing for the second time today — this time from gratitude.
S.L. Woodford, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, is the assistant library director at St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale.