Remember the Broken Things

Remember the Broken Things April 19, 2019

The near-loss of Notre Dame prepared my mind for Good Friday this week. Many prayers would be answered as we gradually learned what had been saved: the Pieta, the rose windows, the cross and the altar. But while the flames raged, consuming roof and toppling spire, all I could think of was destruction and irrevocable loss.

We tend to celebrate Good Friday with one eye on the Sunday that is coming. We know how it will go: from the cross to the grave, from the grave to the sky. But today we set aside what time we can to try to feel Good Friday as the people who were there felt it—not as a prelude, not as a lead-up to the story’s climax, but as the story’s bitter, brutal end. And then we go to bed, relieved that it was only for a day.

At least, some will. Others will wake up on Saturday morning, and it will still be Good Friday.

I have sometimes tried to think what that would be like. I can imagine it perhaps too vividly. I see all the scenarios, always, each one fifty moves deep. The skills that have served me so well in my academic endeavors now serve only to remind me how little I truly know, how breakable things truly are. How easily that which we guard and tend and keep may be knocked out of our hands and smashed in a thousand pieces.

I think of little Jesus, barely walking, toppling over in his unsteadiness and coming down hard on the hand he instinctively threw out to break his fall. I think of Mary, like all mothers before and after her, rushing to the sound of toddler wails, examining knees, palms: “Let me see your hand. Let me wash it. Hold still. I know it hurts. Hold still.” Or the times he must have run his fingers over Joseph’s newest commission and picked up a splinter. More wails. “Hold still. Hold still.”

The tiniest hurt, the smallest crack in the skin. Mother knows where it is. Mother will pore over it. Mother will see that it heals.

So we rush to restore the ancient family clock. So we rush to save the cracking Da Vinci. So we rush to shore up the weakening cathedral foundation. We fuss and fret. We bind up. We preserve. We preserve these temples, these vessels. Until the day when the flood engulfs. The day when the fire consumes. The day when skin is not merely broken but pierced, destroying nerve, destroying bone, clean to the other side.

I go back and re-read this piece, a terrible slow unfolding miracle of journalism, telling the story of the Dailey family in Hurricane Harvey. A simple, salt-of-the-earth family whose mother, Casey, went in for surgery the day before Harvey struck. It was a much-needed surgery, to remove a tumor on her adrenal gland. She had gained weight. She had lost herself. But maybe now she could start to look again.

I can hardly bear to read the rest of the story. Sometimes I have to look away from the tragedy of it all. The infection. The fever rising. The accumulating mistakes in the system that conspire to leave Casey off the evacuate lists when her husband, Wayne, tries to get through. The final too-late boat ride. The last moment when she snaps out of her incoherence and makes eye contact with him as he grips her hand: “Let me go.”

This is the vile practical joke. The serpent high and lifted up in the ambulance window. The silent scream of the open mouth, forming “No. No. No.”

“What have we to set against it?” asks C. S. Lewis. “We set Christ against it,” he begins to answer himself. “But how if He were mistaken?” How if that Being we call Father was the Joker all along?

We hear rumors of the morning. We hear whispers of the tomorrow that is coming. But today our hopes are weak. Today our fears are strong. Today thick darkness blinds our eyes.

So we take, and eat. So we remember. So we remember broken things.

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