I just read a book. Technically I was editing it, but mostly I was soaking it in. Always such a pleasant surprise when I can do that. When I can let a book engage not just my mind but my heart. And sometimes my soul.
My Mother's Chamomile is a WhiteFire title, coming in February, so obviously we expect a little bias from me. But. But.
I need to talk about this book, and it has nothing to do with my interest as its editor when I say this is a novel that everyone--everyone--should read. Because it deals with some things we all--all--deal with.
Grief. Mourning. Death.
The main characters in the book are small-town funeral directors. The folks no one wants to talk to because seeing them is a constant reminder of bad times. Of how short life can be. They're a family mostly avoided--until their neighbors need them. Then they're the givers of mercy. The hands of love. The calm and peace in an ocean of uncertainty.
But who will comfort them when they're the ones dealing with tragedy?
Let me tell you why I couldn't stop reading this book. And why it actually had me mopping tears off me cheeks--me, who gets teary-eyed from time to time but does not cry like that over books! For one thing, the writing style is just so incredibly authentic. For another, it has a surprising amount of action. For another...well, it struck a chord.
Because I've stood in those funeral homes. I've heard the quiet voices of the directors, seeking to soothe. Trying to bring comfort where it shouldn't rightly be. At fourteen, I attended so many viewings that I knew my way through all the rooms of both the old Victorian houses converted to funeral parlors in my home town, I knew where they kept the hot chocolate and tea, I knew which rooms were bigger and which convertible when you shut or opened those accordion doors.
I knew death well that year. In addition to several folks from my church, I lost my uncle. I lost my grandfather.
And oh, how cynical it made me about the whole process of saying farewell.
On the one hand, that's the year my faith went deep. When I started reading my Bible just because, every morning, and not just in Sunday School. That's the year I went from always-being-a-Christian to grasping hold of the Lord with both hands and begging Him never to let go. My faith went deep...but my cynicism got a good root too.
I hated those viewings. I hated having to walk up to the casket and see the body that was no longer the one I loved. I hated seeing the makeup on skin that never wore it. I hated seeing the careful arrangement of hands that, in life, were never still. It all felt so fake to me. So false. That was when I decided that when my time came, I didn't want that. I wanted a party, New Orleans style. Play some jazz, talk about my life. Laugh over the memories, cry too. But don't pat my hand and say how natural I look. Please.
The cynicism took a turn when I was 20. My best friend got married right after high school. I was in her wedding, and she was in mine a year later. It was only another year after that when David and I came home from college one weekend, and my mother-in-law handed me the phone. "It's Christy," she said. I took the phone with a smile.
It didn't last long. Christy was calling to tell me that her husband had died in a car accident the night before. Widowed, at age twenty. She was calling to ask me to be with her. So I drove to her mom's house. I held her when she cried. And when she asked me to go with her and her family to make the funeral arrangements, I went.
All my many visits to those viewing parlors, but that's been my only trip belowstairs. I don't remember much. Just the quiet voice of the directors. Their patience. Their assurance that they'd take care of everything they could. Make it easier on the family in any way they could.
That's what they do. But that was the first time I really paused to wonder how, day after day, they did it.
It was a question that didn't linger long, I gotta say. College had its other losses for me--my boss committed suicide, as did one of my professors. Not many months later, my grandfather died of a brain tumor. I was letting one of my other professors know I'd be missing a class for the funeral, and he got this sad smile on his face. He was the one who had taken over my class the spring before after Mr. Allenbrook died. And that day, Mr. Tuck said, "It's been a bad year for you, hasn't it? Are you okay?"
Questions like that can break a body. Break a dam. Bring the tears that usually one only shed when the shower was covering the sound, when there was no one around to see. Grief, for me, had long been so very private. So very muted. It wasn't my way to rant and rail.
But you know, when I went into one of those same funeral homes again for yet another grandfather, I gave myself permission not to go up to the casket. I stuck to the flower-drenched tables, to the rows of chairs, to the family I hadn't seen in a decade.
I haven't gone right up to the casket since. Not because of any fear or disgust. But because I didn't want to let that cynicism rear its head. I didn't want it to taint the grief of those who needed it.
If there's one thing I've learned over the last seventeen years, it's that everyone mourns differently. But everyone mourns. And if they don't, well then, that's even harder. I've learned that some get angry and some get bitter, some get quiet and some get loud. Some turn to God, some want answers. Some just need a hand to cling to.
But we all break. Because we're human, because we love, because losing someone we love is meant to hurt. We break. We're broken. We have those cracks and chips and holes inside us, the ones no one but the Lord can ever fill.
In My Mother's Chamomile, the Lord uses the hands of His servants to touch hearts all over that small Michigan town. And then He uses the town to touch the hearts of the comforters. It's a book that reminded me so clearly of all those times I'd lost. All those times I'd trekked into that familiar funeral home. All those times when I realized how fragile life is. How tragic it can be. How death makes no difference between rich and poor, young and old. It's always there. I've known for so long that it's always there. And maybe it sounds strange that I so loved a book that drove that home.
But here's the thing. We all have those broken places. We all have those times when sorrow takes us over. When death invades our world. We all deal with it in different ways. And we all wonder if we're doing it right.
This was a book that said, "Right is however you can. Right is whatever it takes. And love--love is what will get you through it. Love of those still with you, yes. But more, the love of God. And if you can't feel that love right now, that's okay. He understands. But you'll see it in us. You'll feel it in our embrace when there's no one else beside you to hold onto. You'll hear it in the quiet when we back out of the room so you can cry. You'll sense it in the flowers that we place with such care around you."
Grief is so very real. Mourning is so very hard. And sometimes--sometimes we just can't wrap our minds and hearts around the whys. They overwhelm us. They make those cracks go wider. And never in my life have I read a book that soothed those old, scabbed-over, broken places like My Mother's Chamomile did. That made me cry because of the beauty that can take root in that moment of greatest sorrow. The pure love that can soak through all the brittle spots.
Something changed in me as I read that book. Something that made me gather my babies close and smile over them. Something that made me pray harder for those I love who are struggling right now. Something that made me wonder how I can better be the hands and feet of the Lord.
Something that made me wake up in the morning and think, Yes. This is life. And it's so, so very precious.
Something that made me determine not to squander that.