Slender and freckle-faced, as plain as his name, my first true love preferred Western shirts with mother-of-pearl buttons and fancy piping, even though he mostly wore soft, plaid flannels or, in warmer weather, crisp cotton with just a hint of his mother’s starch. On the first day of fourth grade, when alphabetical luck decreed we sit next to one another in Library Class, he happened to be wearing a blue-and-white check with a single pocket and short sleeves. Forever after, it was my favorite.
As so often happens, proximity bred friendship. When the librarian told us it was time to share books and read to one another, I read with Tim. Encouraged to search for shelved books by Dewey decimal number, we searched together. Entrusted with the responsibility of choosing our own book report partners, we chose each other.
One day, Tim walked me home from school. It wasn’t far: through the playground, across the cinder track and football field, and then across the track again, swerving around the big willow tree at the corner. The first day, he left me at my gate. Later, he would stay for the cookies and lemonade or milk my mother brought before leaving us to climb the cherry trees behind the house or sit and look at the clouds.
On my birthday, he gave me a new set of jacks. Stubby and thick, sparkling in shades of metallic blue, green and red, they were easy to pick up, and the hard rubber ball that came with them bounced higher than my dad’s old golf balls. They were a perfect gift, a confirmation that Tim was, quite frankly, everything a fourth-grade girl could hope for in a special friend.
When Valentine’s Day arrived, Tim appeared at our class party with something red and frilly tucked under his arm. He never hesitated. Parting the class like some Midwestern Moses he walked up, handed me the chocolates-filled heart with the huge, red bow and said, “Here. This is for you.” How he found the courage I’ll never know, but I was as speechless as my classmates. And yes, at the age of nine ~ I was in love.
Despite the fact that we hadn’t yet held hands, there was no help for it. We’d become an “item”. As jump ropes slapped against concrete and markers tumbled over the hopscotch courts we began to hear the playground chant: “Timmy and Linda, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Linda with a baby carriage!” It was a simpler day, a simple time, and perhaps it simply was assumed up and down the generational ladder that things might happen in just that way. Tim and I never gave any of it a thought. We were fourth grade friends, perfectly content, and life was good.
With the arrival of summer, young love gave way to the necessities of life. Tim traveled to visit grandparents out of state. I visited my own grandparents and then went on to camp. As the weeks passed and my friends and I began to anticipate the beginning of school, we were aware of whispers and rumors. Something had happened to Tim. Nagged and prodded by their children, evasive parents and teachers concealed the truth as long as they could, and then confessed. Although comfortable with water and a strong swimmer, Tim had drowned in an unfamiliar lake and would not be coming back.
When I was given the news by my parents, I said I understood Tim was gone. Still, I had no way of anticipating the magnitude of my loss. On the day classes began, Tim was not there. When we went to the library, my familiar friend was not sitting beside me. As the Librarian called the roll, small voice after small, anxious voice quavered “Present”, until she came to the place where Tim’s name would have been. As she paused, we looked down at our hands, feeling the weight of a terrible absence and the stinging pain of loss. At the end of that empty and terrible day I walked home alone, unseeing, past the playground, track and tree that had been the markers of our life. Finally, I simply sat on the front step and waited. For what, I couldn’t say.
As the days and weeks passed, Tim’s absence became more than I could bear. I begged to be taken to the local cemetery where he was buried, but my own good parents, like the good parents of so many friends, were convinced that children needed to be protected from such things. In the end, it was my fourth-grade teacher who recognized and responded to the depth of a child’s grief. In a gesture both bold and compassionate – a gesture still possible in a day when teachers were like part of the family – she helped me pick a bouquet of autumn grasses from the schoolyard. Then, we journeyed through the late afternoon to the cemetery, to say goodbye.
Few memories of my life are as clear as the memory of standing at my friend Tim’s grave with my teacher’s arms around me, her voice urging me to cry until I could cry no more. Tears poured down my face, splashing over Tim’s headstone and onto the earth until, at last, the tears were ended. Emptied of emotion, I stood while my teacher wiped my eyes with a tiny, embroidered handkerchief and spoke the words that have echoed in my heart for years: “Sometimes, you have to be sad before you can be happy again.”
That might have ended the story, were it not for a funeral I attended decades later in a Liberian village. As prayers were offered for a young woman who had died in childbirth, a libation was poured. Fresh palm wine splashed to the ground from a calabash held high in the air, running in rivulets across the hard-packed earth like tears washing over a gravestone. The experience was strangely comforting, as though all of the grief, sorrow and pain of the family had been poured out in a single liberating gesture.
Throughout my time in Liberia, I experienced the pouring of libation in a variety of settings. It became impossible to witness the ritual without sensing the participants’ shared conviction that gifts of purification and new life were human possibilities. After my return to the States, I saw echoes of the gesture everywhere, not as the residue of an inferior culture but as a primal gesture grounded in the nature of human life. A purely intentional action pointing to a larger reality, libation resonates with sacramental grace, not unlike the moment when a priest elevates the chalice to remind the faithful of what was poured out, and to what purpose. Grace, of course, can make its presence felt anywhere, and the vessel itself is beside the point: jeweled or plastic, golden or gourd, it is the action which matters.
Today, remembering what the years have poured into my life and what has flowed away, I find myself increasingly compelled by images of the human heart as chalice, cup or gourd. As vessels designed for both memory and hope, we must empty ourselves from time to time if life is to fill us with a flood of fresh offerings.
It can be a difficult gesture. The human propensity to clutch at life, to hold on to what has been rather than risk reception of what might yet be is so strong that pouring out our cup of days can seem impossible. But that is what we are called to do, pouring out all the bitterness and disappointment, all the shattered dreams, all the unfulfilled longings, anxieties and fears into a great and swelling stream.
My dear fourth-grade teacher was exactly right to comfort me with her words, “You have to be sad before you can be happy again”. But that is only the beginning, only the first half of the emotional equation. Eventually, the sadness itself must be released if happiness is to dwell in the chambers of a receptive heart. If we are to be filled, heart and soul, with any of the gifts which make us human, there must be a place for those riches to make their home.
For most of us, the process of emptying takes time: sometimes months, sometimes years or even decades. However long it takes, when the moment comes to pour out the old in favor of the new, the promise is that life stands ready to offer its gifts, saying, “Here. This is for you.”