I took my two older kids to church this morning. We always take a hiatus in the summer; the church changes their schedule from two Sunday services to one, and offers no religious ed classes during the one single service, so we stop attending. The one service seems to imply that they expect lower attendance in the summer and that’s fine, I told myself as I got dressed this morning, I have to get over the guilt that was ingrained into me growing up.
As we walked up to the small church building, we had the hoods of our jackets pulled over our heads. It was raining. “Why is it RAINING?” Quentin wanted to know. “Maybe the world is crying,” I replied. “Yes,” Theo added. “The gods are crying.” He is into Greek mythology and convinced that many gods sit up in the clouds somewhere. On other days, I have felt like the world is crying when I have been crying, but not this morning. I had survived Nelle’s birthday week, and now we were at church for the first time in months.
I began attending this Unitarian Universalist church the summer after Iris died. I had long since stopped going to Catholic mass, but felt the need for a spiritual community. I was drawn to the openness and acceptance of this church of people of all backgrounds and their covenant that no one “has attained universal truth in belief or perfection in character.” Their religious ed classes were good, and today, being the start to their new church year, meant that classes would resume and I had registered the kids in advance.
Being the onset of their new church year, today also included a “water communion.” A large pitcher of water was at the front of the church, along with a large bowl. I had remembered reading briefly in the newsletter that congregants were encouraged to bring water from home. I hadn’t, but that was what the pitcher was for – a symbolic representation of water in our lives. The minister invited anyone to come forward, pour their own water or water from the pitcher into the bowl, and say something briefly about why that water was important to them. The small congregation began to line up, each taking a turn with the microphone.
Some had brought water from a vacation, or from a family cabin visited over the summer, or from their homes. One woman talked of burying her brother recently. Another mentioned the water that surrounds her friends in the Outer Banks as they escaped the hurricane this week.
Theo wanted to walk up to the front with me, but Quentin opted to remain in the pew. I thought about talking about the night that we ran through the torrential rain in Nashville to enjoy dinner at a restaurant with live music, but as I neared the front, I knew what I would say into the microphone.
“This water represents well water. I am from a small town in Wisconsin and my aunt still lives there, out in the country, and her water comes from a well, not city water. We visited her this past Labor Day weekend, because on her land there is also a tree. And beneath that tree are the ashes of my daughter, who was stillborn four years ago this week.”
My voice cracked at the end. I sat back down and the tears began to flow freely. I hadn’t cried much for Nelle this week. I hadn’t been holding anything in; they just hand’t come. I was a bit choked up a few times on her birthday and the day before, but sitting in that church in that moment, I cried. Grateful that this church always keeps tissues in the pews. I felt like by putting myself out there, that everyone was looking at me, since I was the only one in the small church crying.
The white-haired woman sitting in front of me turned around and took my hand. “Thank you for sharing,” she said “You won’t ever forget.” No. I knew I wouldn’t. Nelle’s birthday would always be Nelle’s birthday, and it would always be hard. I wondered briefly if she had lost someone, the way that she said you won’t ever forget but she turned to face the front of the church again.
By the end of the service, I had pulled myself together. The kids always enjoy the food that is served in the common room after the service, so we waited in line for fruit and muffins. A woman I recognized came up to me. She is the director of music at the church, and I had seen her many times, including playing the bass with a group during the service we had just finished. She asked if she could give me a hug and I told her she could. I began to cry again.
She thanked me for sharing, just as the other woman had done. She said that the church is a safe space, and by sharing, it would encourage other people to share. She looked at my kids and said that I was setting such an example for them – that I could be sad, and vulnerable, and brave. I replied that our daughter is just as much as a part of our family as they are, and we try to make sure that the kids know that.
The woman asked me my name and when I told her that my name was Anna, her face lit up. “That’s my daughter’s name!” She called over her own daughter, a teenager, one who would not have attended the earlier service but would have arrived for the second service where the teenagers have their religious ed. Seeing the streaks of tears on my face, the girl asked if I was ok. I was struck by her question. Most teenagers would likely be uncomfortable or ignore the tears of a stranger, but she had concern. I replied that I was fine and her mother said “I’m going to tell you about it later.” I knew that it was going to be a teaching moment for that mother. She was going to say something later to her daughter, about being a mother and losing a baby.
I filled my plate with fruit and another woman standing across from me said “Can I ask – what is her name?” Is. What is her name. Not what was her name. This woman knew. She knew that a loved one lost does not make that person past tense. “Her name was Nelle,” I replied.
As much as the morning felt like so many good things, I came home and felt heavy. I took a nap for about 45 minutes, but instead of waking up and thinking “Wow – that was amazing! I feel so refreshed!” instead I thought “I feel even more heavy than I did before I fell asleep.” Fortunately, I had a dinner already planned with a dear friend.
The gods are still crying, as the rain has been coming and going throughout the afternoon. And now I know why the gods are crying today.