When the iconic photographs of 2009 are displayed, I suspect group scenes will prove as memorable as individual faces—snapshots that tell us something not only about who we were this past year, but also something about who we are. Click. Barack Obama is inaugurated US president before a panorama of 1.8 million people jamming the Washington National Mall. Click. Thousands of Iranians gather at great personal risk in Tehran to protest their country’s contested presidential election. Click. A sea of signs at the so-called Tea Party March in Washington, DC bearing messages that conflate communism, socialism, Nazism, and fascism into one big totalitarian stew. Click. A throng of gay, lesbian, and straight demonstrators march to the US Capitol to advocate for marriage equality and the right for homosexuals to serve openly in the nation’s military. Click. Crowds line the streets of Hyannisport, Boston, and Washington, DC to pay their respects to the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
Whether in celebration or in protest, in advocacy or in mourning, the fact of our gathering, the how and the why of such assembly speaks to our character as countries, to our collective nature, to our aspirations and our fears. It is part of what defines us as citizens, whether of a nation such as the United States where free assembly is a fundamental part of our DNA, of an oppressive regime like Iran where such gathering is a subversive act, of a congregation gathering to worship and to affirm their larger cosmic citizenship—or even as part of that most basic unit of identity, a family. As such, paying close attention to the ways in which we gather is crucial to understanding who we are, as a clan joined by blood and marriage, as a nation, and as citizens of the world. These images give us a material way to begin to grasp our character as humans, both individually and collectively.
I was able to be present at, or at least in close proximity to, all of these above-mentioned gatherings except the Iranian protests, where, like so many other people of the world, I closely followed the Twitter and Facebook feeds that sent us pictures of and information about these brave protesters. Each carried for me a different significance, but my most visceral emotional resonance came when I was watching Ted Kennedy’s funeral cortege pass by. You see, Kennedy’s illness and death reflected not just the passing of a icon of public service and citizenship and of an era in American political life; it was also a stark reminder of my own cousin, Ann, whose near-identical diagnosis of brain cancer followed Kennedy’s by only weeks, and whose death came in almost the same exact span of days. No crowds lined the streets for Ann, though nearly four hundred people gathered at the memorial service in her small Iowa town to celebrate her life.
As important as those public memorials are, for most of us it is likely the private gatherings of family surrounding the death of a loved one that hold the most meaning—those times when we gaze upon our own iconic images captured in photographs. These pictures do not make the front page of the newspaper or the evening news, but they tell our stories just as powerfully. And so, when my family joined together this fall to mourn our shared loss, we did so with a large-screen television in the background, displaying a series of pictures of Ann in the final, deeply happy years of her life—images that caught memories and feelings that language could not.
Indeed, as Ann’s cancer coursed through her brain, and she sank more deeply into speechlessness, I found myself also increasingly at a loss for words. Earlier in her illness, my family often looked to me to find just the right thing to say. But over time, as Ann’s ability to communicate failed, I also found my own voice faltering, failing to speak what was in my mind and heart. In the end, I could only hope that somehow everything that was left unspoken was making its way to her and her family through thoughts, prayers, and spirit.
A similar loss for words came as I pondered what sorts of stories I might share with Ann’s daughters about their mom, about our childhood encounters with one another, my memories of her as a young girl, the cousin who most often came to visit. My anxiety rose when I realized that no particular story came to mind. Was our childhood play nondescript or unmemorable? No. But the guilt of failing to remember was nearly crippling.
Yet, as I thought about it more, I realized that for my younger self—as perhaps for most children—Ann had been simply part of the water in which I swam, the air that I breathed. Even as no certain memory stood out, neither could I imagine my childhood without Ann. Her absence in my middle adulthood is equally unthinkable. She was an undeniable fact of life for over fifty years, something that death could never erase. I would not have the life I have without her, even when memories are inchoate. Our relationship was more intimate than many of those for whom I have dozens of life stories to relate. Many people can become episodes in our stories but are not a part of the atmosphere within which we live and have our being. They are not family.
In many ways, that is precisely why family is so important to us, and that is why we gather. It is our lifeline, our ocean, our atmosphere. Family is the space within which we can often make our way through, not always, or even often, aware of where we are. That is not to say that we take these all-important others for granted—though, sadly, we sometimes do just that—but that, like breathing, they are what we inhale and exhale, almost instinctively. In times of death, we may enter more intentionally into that atmosphere and find ourselves inhaling it deeply. As in meditation, we allow ourselves to become aware of our breathing.
Yet, death reminds us also, as we breathe in, that something has changed in that atmosphere, that the air is somehow thinner, and we must labor more to catch our breath, until we attune ourselves to the changes. For a time we may become lightheaded, as if we have altitude sickness. The water in which we are swimming becomes almost indecipherably murkier, lacking some essential quality that we may not be able to name exactly but we recognize as missing.
That is the grief I am experiencing as I mourn Ann’s death. Something elemental is gone, that I have known nearly from my earliest memories. And so I went to Iowa, to join with others in my family, to inhale deeply of that beloved atmosphere, to begin the process of adjusting my system to the changes. And, I went to share my own breath with those who were gasping for air, some almost unknowingly.
Asking the “why” questions is one of the ways we gasp for breath in the face of death. To be honest, I’ve never been big on those sorts of queries, thinking that they often are more distractions from the truth of life than helps to move forward in life. If you were to ask me the “why” question for Ann’s illness and death, I could only say, “Because flesh is frail.” That seems so simple, so obvious. Yet the response has a certain profundity. The frailness of flesh is something we all share. It is what permits us to be that air, that water for one another, to be an atmosphere, an ocean, not simply a small, isolated fishbowl or a vacuum chamber. Indeed, such frailty is a gift of God, that which enables us to be strong together, strong in God’s love.
And strong enough to cry, to mourn a palpable loss that takes both the certain and indistinct forms of a beloved cousin and a somewhat amorphous memory. Strong enough to add water to the ocean that has been depleted, humidity to the air that has been thinned, so that those who are still here and are yet to come have water in which to swim and air to breathe, just as I—and each of us—were gifted from birth. If that is why we are here and are given to each other, it is enough—even when death would try to convince us otherwise. Grief, at its best, knows better, and so we listen and embrace its message, its gift, that death does not have the power to separate us or deprive us of the love we know as family.
The ways in which we gather as a family mourning a loved one are perhaps not all that different from the ways we gather as a public in celebration, in protest, in advocacy, or in tribute. In the face of death, we celebrate the life now gone. We rail against the powers that have taken that life, whether we believe that power to be God, or cancer, or some faceless evil. We work to assure that the loss is not in vain and find ways to preserve the memory of our loved one—in good works, in storytelling, in photographs. Likewise, in our public assemblies, we join together to strengthen one another and be strengthened, to regain our breath when we think it may be failing, to create an ocean in which we can all swim, as individuals and as a society. The images from these gatherings may be as exhilarating as of a throng of humanity, as stark as the face of someone no longer here, as obvious yet invisible as the air, as calming or as enervating as the water. But they all remind us of who we are, what we fear—be it death or taxes—and to what we aspire and hope to be.
Click. Twelve cousins gather on their grandmother’s steps, the only photo of their generation altogether at once. Click. A happy couple, each on their second marriage, pose with their newly blended families. Click. A proud mother bends her forehead to her veil-clad daughter before she enters the sanctuary for her wedding. Click. A group of elated middle-aged women celebrate their community-theater performance of The Vagina Monologues. Click. An extended family gathers to celebrate its matriarch’s ninetieth birthday, led by a grinning, chemo-balded woman. Click. Two bravely smiling daughters wrap their arms around their now wheelchair-bound mother, holding her first grandchild. Click.
David Lott is a religious book editor and a graduate of St. Olaf College and Luther Seminary. He lives in Washington, DC, where he does freelance editing and writing.