“We’d just buried Phyllis’ father. The death had not been sudden. He’d been an elderly gentleman, failing for a while, then dying neither in pain nor in disgrace.
Nor had Phyllis broken into tears during the funeral service nor at the interment, nor standing alone as the casket was lowered with petals into its vault. In fact she had been, as they say, a brick throughout the whole ordeal, washing, wiping, shaving her father and cutting his toenails while he hissed objections. At the graveside her skirt whipped her legs.
I asked whether I could drive her home. She nodded and took my arm.
Phyllis Falk: her fingernails as translucent as her skin; her hair blonde and unrepentant; a closed, foreshortened mouth. When furniture wanted moving, she tied that hair up and moved it. Without a word she cleaned the kitchens of the indigent and sprayed for cockroaches, not on any day wearing lipstick, content in T-shirts and a red bandana.
In those days I owned a banged-up Chevy S10—just room enough in the cab for two. Phyllis’ knees nudged the glove compartment. For her sake I drove in sober obedience.
We turned onto Washington Ave. Phyllis swiveled her head at the turn and began glaring at the storefronts we were passing. She shivered with disgust, then with ferocity. She slapped the window. She slapped it twice as if it were a human face.
“Those people!” she spat. “How can they?”
There were people buying and selling and strolling the sidewalks. I’d expected a brawl, bums sleeping curbside—something outrageous. But this was the daily round of affairs.
“How can they go here and there—blind! Why don’t they stop everything?” Now she was pounding her thigh, “Something has happened! The world is not the same!”
Of course. Oh, Phyllis, I know. A man of monumental proportions has died. The earth you know has tilted on its axis.
And now, finally, my friend began to cry. Sobs that clubbed her stomach where she sat.
What followed? She ceased work and service and worship altogether. And talking. Phyllis didn’t talk at all. She sat unreclining in a reclining chair, the curtains closed. She didn’t refuse visitors, but (and here’s the point) neither did they comfort or console her.
Some were embarrassed, completely at a loss. Death bewildered them. Grief seemed to slam a blank door in their faces, and Phyllis’ heart was shut away. These soon joined that greatest part of Phyllis’ community and quit visiting.
Other comforters were filled with confidence. They came and took charge, reading Bible verses apropos a shaky faith and despair; teaching moral lessons about trust in an all-loving God; cheerily offering solutions like a change of scenery, a visit to a beauty shop, surely! “Get out, girl. It’ll do you good.”
But what was it that lifted Elijah from a suicidal hopelessness? How does God revive the soul entoiled by death?
We can’t read the prophet’s interior spirit—nor do we have to! But we can recognize the signs of desolation when they fall upon him. (1 Kings 18:41ff) Having just overcome the false gods of Jezebel—spectacularly! by fire—Elijah ascends Mt. Carmel where he bids his servants to watch the sky above the sea for rain after two years of drought.
Watch his posture: He bowed himself down upon the earth and put his face between his knees. Oh, what a crouch that is, and what a misery! His bow is no different than the Muslim’s manner of prayer; but instead of stretching his arms forward on the mountain top, he curls his body into such a tight ball, it’s the top of his head on the ground, shut in by his knees and covered by his arms.
Yes, the rains fall. But Elijah is not buoyed by that. He descends into a yet deeper grief. Perhaps he’s cast down by the failure of faith in Israel, despite the marvels of the Almighty (which, by the way, are not unlike the dramatic efforts of Phyllis’ more confident comforters). Perhaps it’s Jezebel’s threat to murder him. Elijah takes off for the wilderness (in Hebrew, the midbar, which might be translated the “wordless place”—as Phyllis likewise had entered a speechless silence.) He separates from his servant and sits under a broom tree. “It is enough. O Lord, take my life away, for I am not better than my ancestors.”
Elijah, aggrieved, falls into that semblance of death: he sleeps.
And now—O ye comforters!—the angel of the Lord accomplishes a genuine consolation and life again.
An angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat,” and he looked and behold, there at his head was a cake backed on hot stones and a jar of water.
Here is the wisest method of raising the sorrowful from death to life again—
A touch. A word. Bread and a drink of water. This is enough.
Three gestures as common as the daylight, which any common heart can do, but which is nevertheless the deed of divinity and a little resurrection.
If the first time comforts Phyllis but does not raise her up, do it a second time.
And in the strength of that food Elijah went forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. Down one mountain, up another, and in between, the valley of the shadow.
To sit by Phyllis. Once in a while to set your hand on the back of hers. To speak some simple encouragement: “It’s okay, how you feel.” “You’re not going crazy.” “There is a healing.”
Please: no stratagems an invalid is too weak to obey. No presumption you know her mind or her inmost experience. No voluble expressions of pity, nor a persistent probing after her thoughts, nor chi-chat about the weather as if nothing were wrong, as if the sky had not been torn in two. No blame for her slow mope. No, nothing is required of you except a touch, a word in this wordless place, a bagel, a piece of fruit and a cup of chamomile tea. Day by day by day.
And this is how Phyllis will know life again.
The morning comes when she hears an early robin outside her window—and it isn’t the robin alone that tingles within her. It’s that she can hear it at all! And then she can respond with an active heart. Even so is the natural world laid out before her again, almost as if there as been a re-creation. And the robin’s song has become a door by which she enters that world again—for following the song is the color green, and after that, why, people. Plain people shopping, going about their natural business.
Never will her father’s passage pass away from her. But it will diminish until it has become the precious name she whispers while strolling through a hallway of pictures and particular memories wherein Phyllis will find a sustaining food, and eat.