On Father’s Day, June 15, 1986, my 13 year old brother Timothy died as a result of drowning. Timmy suffered from epilepsy probably due to a brain injury at birth. It is believed he had a seizure while swimming, which contributed to his death.
If Timmy was still alive today, he would be 44 years old. So as we approach Father’s Day, I can’t help but wonder if he would have ever married and/or been a father.
Recently my parents gave me a box of old pictures and letters, and in this box was a booklet of reflections, poems, and memories written during the week following Tim’s death. I especially treasured looking through the letters my mom wrote to me in the days after Tim’s death, making careful and detailed observations about how I was processing death at such a young age (I was seven). But it was my dad’s piece called “The Boulder” that was especially meaningful to read.
Here it is below as well as some updated comments from my dad.
The boulder is huge, beyond the scope of human eyes. It fills its corner of the universe. It appears to have no crack or crevice. Perfection demands that it have no fault or seam; no root or drip permitted to penetrate its surface or threaten its core.
The boulder has its own reason for being and logic of movement. Its origins are unknown and its ways beyond knowing.
In closer view, the boulder’s cracks and crevices are revealed; its surface is scarred and pocked. And living things of all kinds find refuge in its imperfection. There are large crevices teeming with life. There are small crevices with weak and sick creatures huddled against one another for warmth and comfort. Life has taken root on the boulder and penetrates beneath its surface.
And then the boulder groans and shifts. Cracks and crevices are filled and life is crushed. Water and rock rush in to sever the tender tether of life. Bones are crushed and lungs without gills are filled with death. There is no warning, no protection. Big crevices and small, comfortable and sparse are sealed up in a moment, forever.
At the same time, new crevices are created; old ones improved. New timbers are erected; debris removed. Survivors seek to discover the rhythm of the boulder’s deadly dance and look for new secrets unlocked by its latest rumble. They bury their dead. Some rage, others bow; neither will alter the boulder’s relentless course.
Why does the boulder tolerate life it so carelessly and continuously crushes? Where did the creatures come from? Why do they keep their restless vigil for such a host? Is there purpose and understanding? Is the only purpose of one life to reach the next? Is there no protection to be found?
The questions go unanswered. Still, there is an unseen but not unknown solace. The creatures mourn and they comfort each other. They turn again to the task of enriching their surviving. They bend to the higher will of their existence. they follow an order that yields life and destroys it. And the boulder, too, groans and weeps for its victims. Its tears nurtures new life.
So life on the boulder goes on. The boulder will dance again and more living things will perish. Water still flows. Each dance creates new crevices and enlarges others and the roots of life penetrate ever deeper into the skin of the boulder.
And now, 31 years later, here are some additional comments from my dad:
I don’t recall all the circumstances that caused me to write this piece ten days after Tim died. I was trying to cope with the experience and trying to make sense of it from a perspective of faith. I remember a local pastor who was with us in the hospital waiting room trying to assure us that God was with us and with Tim and my blurting out, “a lot of good that did him (Tim).” I was struggling then and still struggle with the notion of providence and with tying to determine where God is in times like these.
The Boulder was /is the best that I can do with these questions. The world and life upon it is that boulder. In my experience, especially in the aftermath of Tim’s death, the boulder is hard, uncaring and capricious. It just is. It tolerates its inhabitants but does not care for them.
If the boulder operates without any discernible purpose, of course, there will be random acts of destruction and death. Stuff just happens.
The only solace is in the way that creatures inhabiting the boulder persist and persevere and care for each other. Random acts of kindness also happen.
As I read this piece again I noticed that the apparent random, capricious and sometimes deadly movements of the boulder are described as a “dance.” I think this metaphor came from our watching the technician in the cemetery gracefully moving around the grave as he lowered the casket into the grave and thinking of his movements as a dance. I found his movements strangely comforting.
Dance seems to connote purposeful action. So maybe the earth and the other boulders (planets) in the universe are guided by some larger purpose. I don’t know. I doubt it. But maybe there is still the possibility of purposeful action within the randomness of the universe. I hope so.
I hope so too, Dad.
Love you and Happy Father’s Day.