We had a wonderful journey by car to Connecticut for vacation this year. My daughter entertains herself very well in the backseat, but occasionally her plaintive voice would pipe up, “How much longer until __________” I decided to teach her about mile markers, thinking “Now this is a way to sneak some mathematics into summer vacation!” She wasn’t getting the hang of it until I realized that she was stumbling on the same difficulty I used to have with mile markers. Until you know whether they are marking the miles to or from the point of origin, it’s just numbers on a stick. It’s all relative, and disorienting until you figure out whether you are going or coming. Ha. Go figure.
The longer I live, the more mile markers accumulate like beads on a string. The first time…the last time….the time when. A calendar is a collection of mile markers on an arbitrary road traveled over and over again. Mothers who are more organized than I collect their babies’ mile marker milestones in a stylish baby book. Ok, I managed to get the Memorabilia of my babies’ childhood stuffed into the box with the baby book. That has to count for something doesn’t it?
Sometimes there is a knot in the string and beads get stuck there. The older I get, the more knots there seem to be. Some dates on the calendar become like a mile marker in the road that keeps collecting white cross roadside memorials on the ground beneath it. I’m never sure what to do with that. Others might travel along oblivious to what that milemarker means to me, whose life is commemorated at that white cross or what keeps happening at that milemarker and, by the way, why does it keep happening there?
The month of January became cluttered with mile markers first. That may have something to do with a hateful congregational annual meeting or two, which seem to always happen around both my biological birthday and the Superbowl. But it’s also my mother-in-law’s birthday. And it’s also when my mother-in-law died. And it’s my biological birthday, which is also the day I lost twins in pregnancy–what I thought would be my last pregnancy. And it’s when my mother died. I tread tenderly through January. Too many white crosses on the roadside. I found the real and actual date of my baptism some years ago when sorting through my mother’s paperwork. I now claim the right to declare a second birthday on June 3, which I choose in years when January is just too much to bear.
Now comes August. My father died on August 19, on the day of my installation at Christ the King. Twelve years later, I chose the same day as my last official day of call to Christ the King. I figured I didn’t want to mess up any other days with unhappy mile markers, and that one was already available. It is one year since I made that decision, in a very unhappy conversation with a few church leaders. People who loved me kept telling me, “A year from now you will be glad you did this.” I know I looked at them with that “You must be kidding” look. And now, quite quickly in fact, it is a year.
This has been a week of unhappy mile markers in the world too. Robin Williams’ suicide seemed incomprehensible to us. What? The guy who made us laugh, who opened new thoughts for us through his comic genius? The first waves of comments in the press and social media were a mixture of appreciation and love for him and galling thick skinned and bloodless criticism. It sparked an open conversation about suicide that I can hope will be good. Too many people live with the secret of their own suicidal ideations and even attempts, or that of a beloved other. Too many of us live with secret mile markers, calendar dates and roadside memorials….today is the day when. Robin Williams’ death may perhaps release the power of some of those secrets. For a while, we will resolve to be kinder, gentler, more aware of one another. For a while. A year from now, we will cross that mile marker again, but will we be any further down the road, any more compassionate, any more wise?
The killing of an unarmed black teen in Ferguson Missouri and the riots that followed is this kind of mile marker. A year from now, a month from now, many of us will not even recall which day it was. Some will have conjured complete explanations to defend their own hearts from fear or accusation. But this killing takes us (and the press with us) to the last killing of an unarmed black teenager not too long ago, and one before that, and more, and even for some who remember or read, the stories of other unarmed young people killed in Mississippi as they worked to register black people to vote. Yes, but, you probably say. You probably can’t wait to interject “But that was different.” Is it? In what ways? When I think of the mile marker as miles from the point of origin from which we have come on this road, it doesn’t seem so different at all. I’m not even sure that we haven’t passed this mile marker before–many times before. When I think of this mile marker as miles toward a destination I am eagerly anticipating, I want to cheerfully tell the plaintively wailing children in the back seat “Look, we are so much closer than we used to be–do the math!” We all know that only works for so long. Hunger, boredom, dissension and restlessness soon makes that quite clear.
Mile markers have a way of reminding the traveler of the last time one passed this spot, or one just like it. Those are just the ones where something happened. Most of the time, we travel on blissfully mindless of them. Jim will call to tell me “We’re only at mile marker 8” when the bus is slow. He expects me to remember which mile marker 8 is. I don’t pass it every day on the bus. When I do pass it, my mind is on other things.
Not The Mile marker though. The Mile marker, the one where something happened, seers my heart everytime I travel by and whenever I travel by one like it. When I was a child, my family traveled between Memphis, Missouri and our home in O’Fallon, Missouri as often as we traveled to Memphis Tennessee and back. At one particular point we came upon a terrible accident. The Mizzou football team arrived in a bus a few cars ahead of us, and the accident had only just happened. Guys unloaded quickly from the bus, and a team doctor started looking at the victims as the guys pried them from the horrible wreckage. My gaze fixed on a young man carrying a little girl, limp in his arms. He was crying. Every time we traveled that road again, I remembered that football player and that little girl. Years later, I saw the picture we all think of when we remember the Oklahoma City bombing: a firefighter carrying a fatally injured little girl out of the wreckage. The beads gather at the knots. One memory joins to another. Somewhere there is a family that still remembers and mourns that little girl. Both of them.
I have already written about the month of April and the days surrounding my son’s birthday. As life goes on, the mile markers become memorials become entire memorial highways. It’s a wonder I start the engine at all some mornings, with or without coffee. It is too easy to travel down the highway and not notice the roadside memorials or mile markers unless one of them is a place that sucked the life out of you before. Then it becomes personal. In a week, a month, a year, we will be on to other things and be finished assimilating this week’s shocking and tragic news into whatever story makes it manageable and understandable to us. It’s how we get out of bed and start the engine again. Too easily people wag a finger at Robin Williams or paint his life darkly as one of secrets and addictions and depression to which we would not fall prey, or to which we are very much afraid we could fall prey. As a tragic character, we can put fences and boundaries around the story so we remain safe. His family revealed later in the week that he was struggling with a diagnosis of Parkinson’s. I’m going out on a limb here, but I’m going to say it. I get it. Having watched my mother die of Parkinson’s, I can understand how a person might choose to not go there, to take one’s dying into one’s own hands and deprive the disease of it’s degrading victory. Too easily the blithe Christian insists that the person who loves Jesus would never do such a thing. That’s been done before. I think Judas loved Jesus. I think Judas loved Jesus so much that the early Christian church had no idea how to reconcile that one who loved Jesus could possibly do what Judas did, and then kill himself. So we did what we do so well. We added him to the census of hell.
I am not blithe.
At some point, one can no longer be blithe when passing the mile markers. At some point, it’s worth it to do the math. How many lives have been lost here? How many have been pried out of the wreckage here? How much road kill can we stand for?
I journey on, mile marker to mile marker. A year later, I cannot say that August 19th doesn’t matter to me anymore. I cannot say that the anger and hurt I experienced a year ago is resolved or wiped away because I moved on and have done other things. All I can say is that it’s different. I have passed the mile marker. Mile markers make no sense until you’ve been on the road long enough to know whether they mark the miles from the border from which you have come, or the miles to the destination where your friend waits to gather you in her arms, where they have all been there waiting for you to find your way, a place you’ve never been but strangely feels like the place you always should have been and wanted to be.
I am not talking about heaven. Not only.