In my dream I am swimming in dark water. As I descend into depths unknown, I can tell there are other people watching from farther away, as if they line the walls of an underground cistern with different rooms and levels, filled with water completely, water unfathomable.
I dive into an area further down than the others. It seems like a dark aquarium but without light on either side of the glass. However I can still somehow see a box on the bottom. I open it. It is full of pictures, letters, keepsakes. In the dream I know what these things mean and I am filled with intense sorrow. My brother is at my shoulder now. A more terrible emotional pain than I have ever known fills me. I try to show my brother the things in the box and explain the significance and the pain but he can’t answer me. He only looks on. I am not sure he understands me.
I am distressed. “Why did you bring him?”
The Lord is silent, his expression inscrutable. I look at my brother who is standing at his elbow; “I can’t deal with talking to you!”
Mark’s hand had been coming out to me and he had started to say my name.
“OK OK! So I can’t fix everything at once!” he says.
He turns as if to leave but I have to ask, “Wait! … Have you seen Mom?”
“No,” he says to my surprise. “But I can feel Mom.”
I think about that. “Are you with God?”
“I’m …learning about God.” Another surprise.
“Well… where are you?”
“I don’t know. It’s just quiet here.”
I think of of the land of the Samaritans, of Jacob’s well, and the mountain in the distance where the people worshiped God whom they did not really know (see John 4:4–26.)
“Do you see anybody?”
Just Bob.* He isn’t always here but he comes to see me sometimes and we talk.
I am circling over the top of the hotel where my brother shot himself and fell from a balcony on the ninth floor.
Then I realize I am standing on the balcony next to my brother. Intense grief wells up in me.
“Didn’t you remember us? Didn’t you understand how much we loved you?”
He doesn’t look at me or speak but I feel that I am him and in my mind’s eye I see our family and all of our friends. But they are so far away as if they are across an infinite chasm.
“I saw every one of your faces.” I feel his longing and love for each one dear to him. I understood that the longing was more like a longing for the past though. To him there was no way back. I feel his overwhelming sorrow.
I understand that while to me there was a way back, to him there wasn’t.
I can’t feel the impact of the shot. I don’t hear it.
But then I experience him falling. It’s slow, very slow. He knows right away after the shot that this was all wrong, a terrible, horrible mistake.
As he falls he senses these beings all around him, present in different places all of the way down; some close, some witnessing from farther away. He realizes they are sad, so sad. He knows they are sorry for him and that they mourn over this terrible act he has just committed. They are gentle though, not angry. Just terribly terribly sad.
He wonders what they are. He thinks his sister would probably call them angels, but he isn’t sure.
What happens now?
The fall continues in slow motion.
Suddenly he’s caught. It all stops. Big strong arms squeeze him tight.
“It’s OK, buddy. It’s OK. It’s all over. You’re safe. I’m here. Come on with me a while.”
Breaking the fall.
*Bob was my brother’s best friend, colleague, mentor and soul brother for 24 years. He was also his brother-in-law. Bob died in my and my brother’s arms in April of 2012.
“When Black Friday comes, I’m gonna dig myself a hole, I’m gonna lay down in it ‘till I satisfy my soul.”
The Advent Season is at the same time as the Shopping Season. I wish it wasn’t so. I wish, when December comes, that I could spend my Advent and Christmas as a hermit instead.
I would probably miss my brother though.
I told Jesus how much this time of year stresses me out.
There is so much to do and the whole soundtrack of Advent is Christmas music when it isn’t Christmas. They play and play those Christmas songs everywhere you go, and by the time Christmas comes I don’t even want to hear Joy to the World ever again.
I hate shopping, even on line.
I am prone to mall nausea.
Jesus listened in silence. He is good at that.
He has been helping me pack, since I am in the middle of moving.
“Can’t we just trick all the stores by moving Christmas to some other time?”
He sat back on his heels, smiling at me. “Let’s go shopping.”
“What, right now?”
But he was already putting on his shoes. Which means I had to put on mine, too.
He wanted to go to Wal-mart. I hate that place. But I drove him there.
There was a lot of traffic, and some people were not driving in their right minds. I growled at them, but I said, “God bless you, have a nice day,” because what else can you say with that guy around?
When we arrived, he wanted to sit in the parking lot and hold my hand for a while.
So we held hands sitting in the car. I looked at him sometimes, and sometimes I watched the people going by. So many of them were smiling, though many seemed pre-occupied. People handed each other carts, stepped aside for the elderly, grinned conspiratorially at the children, many of whom were skipping or jumping up and down. Parents looked at each other over their children’s heads and laughed.
I thought about how even in the midst of the over commercialization of the season, it is true that people seem to treat each other with a little more kindness. Maybe there is something to the magic of the season after all. It’s Jesus coming out in people at his special time of year.
Jesus said his mom always took him shopping when she went, that he loved going with her.
I thought about that.
We always think of Mary’s pregnancy during Advent. She was filled with Jesus. She took him everywhere. From what Elizabeth said at the Visitation, his presence could be felt in her. I imagined Mary, very big and pregnant, doing the shopping, smiling, knowing.
Jesus squeezed my hand. “Let’s go.”
At the front doors, he made sure I donated to the Salvation Army, and reminded me to thank the bell ringer for being out there.
He drew me into conversation with some little boys who were raising money for their team, prompting me to ask questions that seemed to please them.
We walked through the tinseled Wal-Mart, noticing people and blessing them. He pointed out to me the ones who were tired or worried or sad, and had me pray for them. He showed me examples of people being kind to one another across the usual social boundaries we rarely think about and seldom disregard. I began to kind of almost like Wal-mart.
I bought some dog food and we silently blessed all the people in the check out line; especially the young mother with the crying baby and fussy toddler, the cashier who looked as if she had worked a double, and the old man who counted his change out so slowly and then did it again.
I felt happy.
But then Jesus said that the mall was next.
Yep, there was that Christmas music. He smiled, I noticed. He said he likes Christmas music all the time.
It was crowded in the mall and I was almost instantly over stimulated. He patted me on the back.
He thought I should try smiling from the heart at everyone I saw.
This simple exercise had an amazing curative effect on my nerves.
I started seeing possible gifts my daughters might like a lot. I even started to feel a little excited. I walked a little faster. I thought how easy to please both my daughters are, and how much I love them.
As we made our way through the mall, Jesus reminded me to say a kind word to everyone I interacted with, even to go out of my way to compliment people. I was surprised how much this little effort brightened people’s faces, and mine, too.
He wanted to go into a store that looked really glitzy to me. I dislike places like that. They make me feel ridiculous.
Sure enough when we stepped across the threshold, I noticed the hole in the toe of my shoe, became conscious of the eccentric bent and general sloppiness of my clothes, the fact that I have not worn make up in years.
Looking at all those expensive beauty products on mirrored surfaces, all those swanky clothes, the fashion show music, the fast pace, being surrounded by the fashionable and well dressed, made me unusually self conscious. Then I was annoyed at myself for caring.
Jesus pinched me. Because in my self absorption, I had not noticed a teenaged girl whose bag had come open on the bottom. Her items fell and rolled across the slick, polished aisle and under clothes racks, scattering hopelessly. People stepped over her things, or avoided her or stared at her, but nobody was helping her and she was embarrassed, as teens tend to be.
I helped her find everything, even getting on my hands and knees and crawling under hanging coats, smiling because it reminded me of hiding from my mom in stores as a kid.
All her things restored to her, and a new bag procured, the embarrassed teen was on her way, hopefully feeling a little better, and thinking of what was for dinner.
On our way out, Jesus and I passed one of those triple mirrors that help you see your new outfit from every angle. As I walked by, I saw an unexpected flash of color and retraced my last two steps. I saw myself in a golden dress with bracelets on my arms, rings on my fingers, and gold sandals on my feet, a small crown on my head. I laughed as the vision faded, and the voice in my ear said, “This is how you look, to ME.” I closed my eyes in sheer joy.
When I opened my eyes, he had slipped away. He must have gone to help someone else so I got into the car alone, knowing he had his own ride home.
At a very busy intersection I saw him standing on a corner holding one of those signs saying that he was hungry, and would someone please help.
I hate when he stands on a corner where I can’t get to him unless I go to the next exit and turn around and almost get in a wreck trying to help him. But I did it anyway. I even gave him a hug along with the money. He patted me and said, “God bless you.”
Back in my car, I turned on the radio. Matt Maher was singing “Alive Again” and it made me cry a little bit.
“You called and You shouted Broke through my deafness Now I’m breathing in and breathing out I’m alive again
You shattered my darkness Washed away my blindness Now I’m breathing in and breathing out I’m alive again”
I understand. The spirit of Advent, Lord, is in listening to you, noticing you, and spending time with you in the ways you lead me to, loving in all the ways the world around me offers… even in shopping and going to Wal-Mart and the mall.
I originally wrote this in 2014. It appeared on ATX Catholic and also in my newspaper column at Bryan Eagle. 🙂