I wasn’t sure how our family could face any holidays without Parker, and Thanksgiving posed its own set of problems. That particular holiday of 2009 was for some reason especially hard for me, I recall, since I’d somehow managed in the two previous years to sidestep the date, reasoning with myself and the family that since Europe didn’t celebrate the holiday, we didn’t need to, either.
But something was brewing in my soul already at the beginning of that November. I felt it percolating at the base of my spine. So I kept quiet, bracing myself against that new, gentle internal imperative that, yes, this year needed to be the year we returned to giving real thanks.
You see, giving thanks as we’d given thanks over all the Thanksgivings for the last twenty years was fraught with the potential for a nasty emotional crash and burn. For as long as our children could recall, Thanksgiving had been synonymous with one thing more than anything: gathering missionaries in our home. It was one of the main reasons we’d invested in our long, massive pine slab of a Norwegian dining table, in fact. We knew we needed room for missionaries at Thanksgiving.
Sometimes we would get a real throng packed into our home; one year we had had eight elders and sisters and a few random friends for whom we set up chairs and extra tables in every corner. I remembered how music played throughout the house or from the piano where the radiant young people gathered, pulling our children between them, to sing harmony from the hymnal. Scented candles mingled with the smells of holiday kitchen. I wore an unused apron. Randall, oven mitts. Luc, his French chef’s hat. Dalton, a construction paper pilgrim’s collar. Claire, an Indian headdress. And Parker, a look of such hunger, you’d have thought he had just crawled out of the hull of the landlocked Mayflower itself.
He was always especially preoccupied with the details of the feast. Just like the rest of our kids, he knew full well this kind of spread was nowhere near Mom and Dad’s normal culinary behavior. The gastronomic high point of our family’s calendar is what it really was. So you’d better enjoy it. And plan on leftovers until well past Christmas. Consequently, Parker really got into it. He would help baste the turkey, mash the potatoes, crimp the piecrust edge. With Claire, he would set out silver and china, fine glasses and the harvest centerpiece, his anticipation and appetite mounting as he awaited the missionaries’ arrival.
Because as much as he had an appetite for food, he was an even more voracious social creature, and more than turkey and stuffing, it was actually the gathering of elders that gave him his biggest charge. To boot, Thanksgiving is literally our family’s rightfully inherited holiday, and Parker was proud of that. As early as age five, he was vocally proud of the fact that he was a direct descendant of the originator of the Thanksgiving feast, Governor William Bradford of Plymouth colony, and as such, Parker had learned, over the years, to fill in the blanks in Randall’s predinner presentation on the history of the holiday and the saga of the pilgrims, whose blood was in our veins.
After that little presentation, we’d always eat. Then we’d sing, tell stories, list our rounds of thankful-for’s, laugh and thank and sing, and eat all over again until the three turkeys, two hams, eight pies, bread pudding, six dozen rolls, the stuffing and the cornbread and the cranberry sauce and the ten side dishes (and those hidden coffers of chaser chocolates) were gone. Or at least thoroughly decimated.
Maybe the children wouldn’t notice if we skipped it again, I kept telling myself as November crept along. Maybe, though, they would notice, but maybe they would understand, too that, well, Mom and Dad just can’t do that song and dance and feast anymore. Maybe intuitively they would know that it was not the singing, dancing, or feast-spreading that was painful. Maybe they actually understood that what was painful, when you know our whole family history, was those missionaries.
For eighteen years, our family had discussed and looked forward to that 2009 date. With missionaries themselves, we’d discussed—over third and fourth servings of stuffing with turkey gravy—when little Parker would one day be grown, when he, too, would be a missionary. My memory vaults had stored that truth. This year, he was supposed to have been one of them. It was one obstacle I couldn’t easily get past. Even in mentally projecting to the feast day, my son’s absence felt bigger—louder, heavier—than any feast or any feast-covered Norwegian table could possibly cover for.
Don’t misunderstand. I knew cognitively that I had very much for which to be grateful. Endless much for which to thank my loving Father in Heaven. But I still felt sad and pensive and lonely. Lonely for my boy. And I feared that trying to celebrate that day with missionaries was going to mean I be inauthentic to the point where my face might crack. Who knows what I might do? What if I broke down? Or worse, what if I had to hold so stony that everyone would feel the stiffness and the happy feast would be a brittle bust?
I held those feelings in check for a while. Then, one Sunday at church meetings while casually eyeing the four good elders, two young sisters, two lovely senior couples, and the fine mission president and his wife all serving in our little Munich congregation, I felt suddenly ambushed by a crowding sense of affection for them.
It catapulted me in their direction.
I strode up as if it had always been my plan—it had not been my plan; let’s be clear that it was strictly against my plan—and I invited them all to our home for a what I announced was going to be a “fabulous Thanksgiving feast!”
The night before said “fabulous feast!” I found myself on edge and on my knees. I was praying to the Father to guide me, to show me what to do with this continuing weight of sorrow that held me down and made me sometimes feel like a total alien in the world. How, I asked the Father, could I go on as He wanted and needed me to go on? How could I bring joy and testimony and hope to others when they, through no fault of their own, embodied the very thing that made my great and reverberating loss worse? I needed a paradigm (I told God this), or a model or something—anything—to show me how to live with the ever-presence of my son’s absence.
I was waiting. I would follow His instruction, whatever it was.
So I prayed, then waited, then waited some more. Then, about an hour later, I received the distinct impression to read in the Old Testament.
Okay, I thought. But you know I’m studying the Book of Acts right now, I told the Impression. (I think I even motioned with a finger to the scriptures lying open on my nightstand, in case the Impression thought I was just making excuses.)
Old Testament, it said.
I held my head low in prayer, my eyes squinched in questioning. Huh?
Go to Samuel.
Samuel. Samuel? But aren’t there two Samuels?
First. First Samuel.
All right. But the chap—?
First Samuel. Chapter 1.
Question mark dangling silently in my head.
And focus on verse 18 and onward.
I got up from my knees, got my scriptures from my nightstand, closed them from where they’d been in the Book of Acts that morning, and opened the pages.
In one glance at the chapter heading I felt gentle heat and expansion spread across my head and shoulders. Only in that moment did I recall what 1 Samuel was all about. (I had taught it in seminary just the year before but had forgotten it in the internal blur heading up to Thanksgiving.)
It is, as you probably know by heart, the story of young Samuel. But for me and from that point on, it will forever be the story of my beloved Hannah.
I sat there in bed and felt like a silent electrical storm was filling my room. Tears hung on my eye ledges. There she was: my paradigm. Magnificent Hannah, who leans against the temple pillar, weeping in the bitterness of soul because she longs for a child but is barren. Who is then promised by Eli she will have one, but only one. Whose sad countenance, with that divine promise, disappears forever.
Hannah bears the son and brings her treasured Samuel up to exactly the point where she has weaned him. (She keeps him as long as she possibly can. With Parker, it was right up until he was an official adult, until he was a week at college.) And then, transformed by her deep integrity into a pillar of strength herself, she hands her little boy back to God —”lends” him back to His house—where he will be part of that temple, and will “appear before the Lord, and there abide forever.” Shoulders erect, gaze even, she hands back the gift, so that her son will worship and serve God, his rightful Father, the rest of his living days. Oh, what a woman!
But that is not all.
I felt prompted to read on into chapter 2, and there I found equally astounding truths. Hannah—this woman who, the cynic could argue, had been robbed of her prized child, (robbed is the root for bereaved) —does not then curl up and retreat forever in her mother sorrow. Of course, there’s no reason to believe she is anything but heartsick. Empty armed. Desolate. But she does something remarkable at chapter’s turn, and it’s something I still can scarcely fathom. She takes a deep breath, throws back her head, and instead of wailing and lamenting, this bereaved mother sings. For ten whole verses straight, Hannah sings prophetic praises to the Lord.
It just so happens that I am a singer. Singing was a principle part of the mother my son Parker knew. Throughout his life, Parker had gone to countless rehearsals, recitals, shows and concerts, had watched me from backstage or from the front row as I signaled to him, had become friends with my accompanists and many orchestra members, had even learned many scores with me.
In fact, I had even performed with Parker, who was a gifted percussionist, on several occasions. He used to joke that with his dad, he spoke fluent basketball. With his mom, fluent music.
Can you blame me, then, that his death threatened to shut down my vocal chords completely? Permanently?
Sing? The thought stuck in my throat like cold tar. I held my eyes on those words in the bottom right hand corner of my page: “Hannah sings praises to the Lord.”
But this is too much, I thought. Too much to ask.
Yet as I stared at those words, I heard Parker’s mellow voice encouraging me: “Keep singing, Mom.”
For whatever “singing” would mean––and at that time I couldn’t get beyond a hazy notion of just squeezing air through my throat— I was to keep doing it.
Then, continuing to read, I turned the page. I remembered Hannah, the woman from Chapter 1, drooping in despair like a drunk leaning against the temple pillar. Then I saw the decisive and covenant-sure mother standing firmly as a temple pillar. And then I envisioned her here, raising her eyes, her head, her voice in song. And I came to verse 8: “For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and he hath set the world upon them.”
So there it was, an essential key that unlocked a paradigm shift for me. Hannah would become my personally appointed patron saint of those who, in spite of broken hearts, do not abandon their covenants. They keep singing their devotions to God. In spite of and even in the midst of great hurt and deep grief, those like Hannah can be transformed by God’s grace, transformed and rebuilt from rubble into pillars of integrity upon which God can rely, his kingdom can be built, and others in distress can lean.
My Hannah. My paradigm. I’d found her.
Or, she’d found me.
That year, I let the elders take over kitchen clean up. While they packed all the leftover turkey and stuffing, cornbread and sweet potatoes into plastic bags they’d take home for themselves, and while they scrubbed and dried serving platters, their white shirtsleeves rolled up to their elbows, dark ties flipped over their shoulders to keep them away from the sink full of soap suds, I sat in the next room at our piano.
Encircled in the love and radiance of God’s penetrating joy, flanked by young sisters and elders who might as well have been my Parker’s best friends, I sang hymns of Thanksgiving. Head thrown back. Eyes glistening. Heart and soul brimming with a true feast.
1 Samuel Chapters 1& 2
She wept and fasted, prayed and wept sore while
the priest misread her longing, misunderstood her anguish, misjudged her, this
strange woman of sorrowful spilled-out spirit, the drunk
clinging to the temple pillar, whispering to herself and to God while
vowing the vow.
God heard that vow, remembered her, and the boy she bore
she named Samuel, “Because I have asked him of the Lord”
and she rejoiced with song while the vow warmed her milk.
She praised, while the vow pinched half-pitch dissonance in her hummed cradle tunes.
Closing her fingers round her child’s tiny pillowed thigh, she felt the vow.
She would not reverse the conception;
she would not rescind the covenant,
and caught betwixt boy and vow, she wept and fasted, prayed and wept
that sore second gestation: the sworn months to have, then wean, him.
Then lend him to God.
Hours dissolved as did days.
Months, dripping in milkdrops
that drizzled into streams
of dire transience, filled out his flesh,
readied him for the temple.
Now she proffers him breast and breast again and again, knowing
her eyes must memorize the secret rhythm of his fontanel pulse.
Here: velvet folds in the nape of his neck. And here: a fingernail, an eyelash. . .
No, not yet, son, do not yet turn your gaze, do not strain your neck
toward the imminent world.
Here: my honeyed nipple.
Her milk runs dry. His time runs out.
Pulling the child tight to her heart, her vow low on lips, she goes to gather
three bullocks, one ephah of flour, one bottle of wine: Flesh, Life and Blood;
a decent offering, past worthy. And none other knows what is privately required:
This one, her one and her only child. True token of the intimate vow.
Weeping, fasting, praying and weeping sore, this strange woman,
the one like a temple pillar,
whispers into her child’s ear the vow, breathes of his hair, and, arms stretched,
offers the offspring to her High Priest.
With that, she turns and goes, and going, raises her eyes and voice to God
in her soaring anthem of thanks.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.