I had been driving for hours. Winding through highways and interstates on day two of a journey home. Not for me, but for a family member slipping between dementia robbing him of his ability to use a phone and serving him up memories long forgotten. Stories about Saigon and Okinawa flowed through the car like yesteryear was yesterday. I mostly just listened, reminded him to put his seat belt on, and reassured his wife we were on course and okay. Her voice was raspy and it exhausted her to remind him of where things were in the car, where we were at, and what we were doing next. She had lost her voice temporarily to surgery for stage 4 thyroid cancer. Yet, she had become agile in knowing what he needed. I suppose if you are married long enough you can still read a man’s mind even while it is slipping away.
Somewhere in Virginia I started to notice purple flowers along the roadside. Patches of purple like the rebellious streak in my aunt’s hair. Purple has always been my favorite color. I sometimes get fixated on things and found myself during breaks in driving searching for the name of these lovely wild blooms. I took pictures, but it was not the right flowers. I asked people and searched online while at rest stops. It feels good sometimes to have something to search for. I was not successful, though. The flowers flowed into Pennsylvania with us. We greeted my uncle’s family, his sister in the early stages of Alzheimer’s herself. Her husband blind. When I was telling friends where I was going for the week most of them reacted with a respectable level of pity. While I unpacked upstairs I heard them all downstairs laughing and comparing ailments. They were joyful and I was tired. No need for pity; family is a balm.
The next morning I was being picked up in a rental car so that I could drive into Philadelphia to visit friends for just one night. I did not want to be gone too long in case my family needed me. A jovial older woman was my ride and as we passed a patch of the purple flowers I asked her what they were.
“Wild phlox”, she responded. “If you look close enough you will see some white ones mixed in, too.” She then told me as a child she would pick them all the time, especially on Decoration Day and place them on the graves.
“They wouldn’t last long but they were pretty and we didn’t have much money.”
Every third Sunday in May for as long I can remember my family has taken a pilgrimage to the graves of our relatives in the foothills of Alabama for Decoration Day. I still marvel as a now Catholic at this tradition in such a Protestant section of the South. The care of the graves, the showering of greetings to the dead, and remembrances conferred. This time we were traveling much farther north and to many more graves.
I sometimes question how much of my contemplation of faith is a combination of quiet time on drives and “shower” thoughts. I lean into silence rarely, as motherhood and work leave me little time to slide my thoughts toward Heaven uninterrupted. For this reason I welcome long trips driving, anywhere really. On my drive into Philadelphia, curving through hills and valleys, my thoughts wandered to my soon visit with friends. Neko Case’s voice pierced gently through my thoughts,
“The most tender place in my heart is for strangers. I know it’s unkind but my own blood is much too dangerous…”
The people that I would be visiting were not strangers but we are not at the point in friendship where we have exchanged enough of ourselves for burden to slip in. Reuniting would be joyful, I presumed. The Lord is aware of our fickle hearts. Like many of faith, I pondered and heeded the call of Pope Francis to New Evangelization. “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature,” Jesus says to his disciples. It is a simple command but I wonder if there is more to it. The Lord knows us better than we know ourselves. How we become bogged down in our routines and labors. Our daily interactions with humanity sometimes trials no matter how deeply we love the people around us. We are creatures with a fascination for newness, a desire for venturing outward. We desire to carry ourselves into fresh friendships and to connect with others. When Jesus said he came to fulfill the law, would it not include that which is written in our hearts? In the most tender places? Go into the whole world He says. These quiet moments I have are the times when I do not feel as if Jesus is just a lovely concept hiding behind the veil. It is the times I am fully aware that I am carrying him with me, to wherever I roam. I should consider what I am bringing to the people that I meet on my journey through life. In the giving and taking of learning about each other, do they know that I desire for them what God desires for them, and do I show it? The night before when I was talking to the host of our stay, the man that is blind, he told me that there was a spring in town that supplied water to the whole area, producing roughly 11,500,000 gallons day. He added that no one was really sure where it originated from. I am not sure if that last part is entirely true but I do know that we can take for granted the wellspring constantly available to us in the Lord. His love flows constantly and is enough for all to be satisfied.
A few days later we started making our way back home. We stopped to visit several graves in several states along the way, flags and flowers in hand. On the last night before heading home we stopped to tend to my grandparents resting place. My grandmother was deeply loved and deeply kind. My aunt and I scrubbed the headstone and fussed over flowers. I was glad I was wearing sunglasses because the realization that I do not know how much longer I have with my aunt began to sink in. I teared up a bit. I had stood in that small cemetery so many times in my life and although it always felt like time was standing still when I did, I know that time is not standing still for any of us.
“I know it’s unkind but my own blood is much too dangerous” passed through my mind briefly as I stood back to see the fruits of our labor. I mourned my grandmother on many levels but mostly the abuse she endured and the life I think she deserved versus the one she humbly bore. Purple was also her favorite color. I wondered if she had ever seen the wild phlox. Had she ever had the opportunity to travel where she wanted to go? Be at peace alone with Christ? Be loved as God wanted her to be loved? I thought those wild phlox would look lovely on her grave.
But, they don’t last long enough.
Sometimes it feels like neither do we.