My earliest memories from childhood have in common a single, overwhelming quality: fear.
I was not yet four when I awoke in the middle of the night to a wild pummeling at the door. Mother, in her bathrobe, unfastened the chain to let in a hysterical woman, then slammed and locked the door just in time. The woman's drunken husband was chasing her with a jagged, broken bottle.
For the next half-hour I lay in bed and listened to the sounds: inside, the woman's blubbery sobs; outside, the man's loud threats punctuated by the blows of his fist on our door and the shatter of glass from a bottle hurled against our brick wall. Then policemen came, and the light from their squad car swept across our apartment, eerily lighting in red the faces of neighbors who had gathered just outside.
Another memory: my mother's stern, mysterious warnings against a "nasty, nasty man" who had been seen in the neighborhood offering candy to little boys and girls. "Don't you ever go near him, she said, gripping my arm as if I already had. "Don't ever go beyond the swing set in the backyard."
The polio epidemic of 1950 had widowed my mother at the age of 26, and only now, as an adult looking back, can I sense the hardship she bore trying to rear two sons in a grim "white trash" housing project near Atlanta.
When I was five, we left that project for the country town of Ellenwood, a move that crossed a psychic distance from Charles Dickens to Mark Twain. We now lived on a divided dirt road, with a colonnade of trees running down its center, in a house that was connected to no one else's. My memories of that year come back in happy waves. The freight train that derailed, spilling mountains of bright green watermelons for us kids to climb, slide bumpily down, then lob at each other. The mule next door who gratefully ate all the too-large and too-bitter cucumbers from our garden. My mongrel dog, Buster Brown, who disgraced himself by wandering too close to an open septic tank. (No amount of raw meat would lure him up a slanted board, and we despaired of Buster's fate until a neighbor man, genuinely heroic, waded in to rescue him.)
In that house I first learned to ride a bike, and to read, and catch a baseball, and climb a tree, and swing out over a creek on a rope. And it was there one Easter Sunday that I learned the meaning of one of the most terrible words in the English language.
As far back as I can remember, we had a dog. They were all mixed breeds from the dog pound, and since we couldn't afford distemper shots they rarely lived long. But as soon as one died, another puppy would come along to chase away our grief. They marked my progression through childhood: "Oh, that's the year we had Rebel, just after Blackie died."
We never had cats, though, not until we moved to Ellenwood. An aunt in Philadelphia had let cats, scores of them, run wild in her row house, and there my mother had acquired a deep aversion. But finally, our first year in Ellenwood, Mother relented. We got a six-week-old kitten, solid black except for white "boots" on each of her legs—as if she had daintily stepped in a shallow dish of paint. Could she have any name but Boots?
Never was so much loving attention devoted to a kitten. My brother and I resolved to raise a pet so unblemished that our mother would desire a houseful of such sublime creatures. Boots lived in a cardboard box on the screened porch and slept on a pillow stuffed with cedar shavings. Forbidden to bring her inside the house, we spent most waking hours on that porch. Mother insisted that Boots must learn to defend herself before venturing into the huge outdoors, fixing a firm date of Easter Sunday for the kitten's first foray.
The final days before Easter tried our patience and fanned our longing. At long last the time arrived, the day of Boots's emergence.
The Georgia sun had already coaxed spring into full bloom. Easter morning began with the obligatory church service, after which we were required to line up like prisoners beside the tulips and daffodils for family pictures. I endured the picture-taking with much squinting and complaining, then yanked off my tie and ran to liberate Boots.
She sniffed her first blade of grass that day, and batted at her first daffodil, and stalked her first butterfly, leaping high in the air and missing. She kept us exuberantly entertained until neighbor kids descended upon us for a prearranged Easter egg hunt.
But when our next-door playmates arrived, the unthinkable happened. Their pet Boston terrier, Pugs, following them into our yard, spied Boots, let out one growl, and charged. I screamed, and we all ran toward Boots. But already Pugs had the tiny kitten in her mouth and was shaking it like a sock. We kids stood in a circle around the scene of violence, shrieking and making threatening motions to scare Pugs off. Helpless, we watched a whirl of flashing teeth and flying tufts of fur. Finally, Pugs dropped the kitten on the grass and trotted off, nonchalantly.
Boots had not yet died. She was mewing softly, and her eyes held a look of terror. Blood oozed from many puncture wounds, and her shiny black coat was flecked with Pugs's saliva. I prayed desperately that she would survive, and we all begged our parents to rush her to a veterinarian. But a neighbor pointed to the odd way Boots's head was jerked sideways. "Broken neck," he pronounced. "She'll never make it."
The adults shooed us away, and for many years we did not learn what happened next: they placed Boots in a burlap bag and held her under water in the creek, putting her out of her misery.
I could not have articulated it at the time, but what I learned that Easter under the noonday sun was the ugly word irreversible. All afternoon I prayed for a miracle. No! It can't be! Tell me it's not true! Maybe Boots wouldn't really die. Or maybe she would die but come back—hadn't the Sunday-school teacher told such a story about Jesus?
Or maybe the whole morning could somehow be erased, rewound, and played over again minus that horrid scene. We could keep Boots on the screened porch forever, never allowing her outside. Or we could talk our neighbors into building a fence for Pugs. A thousand schemes ran through my mind over the next days, until the reality finally won over, and I accepted at last that Boots was dead. Irreversibly dead.
From then on, Easter Sundays in my childhood were stained by the memory of violence and death in the grass. And as the years increased I learned much more about the word irreversible. Once in the woods a friend and I lined up 17 box turtles beside the creek and proceeded to drop heavy boulders on them, laughing as their shells cracked and their insides spurted out. That act of cruelty, my own cruelty, shocked me beyond measure. It defied my deep love of animals, and I long lived under its shadow of shame and guilt. I yearned for some way to erase it, to reverse it.
There followed a whole succession of scenes I likewise wished to reverse: fights with bullies, broken arms, foolish comments in class, unexpected pop quizzes, the inevitable first automobile accident, and all the other minor jolts of growing up, each one underscoring the dreadful word irreversible.
I had not escaped tragedy by moving from the housing project to an idyllic setting on a country lane; I had merely changed the setting where my life, both tragic and joyful, would play itself out. Life is like that for adults as well, I was to learn. We never quite grow used to it, but we concede that life consists of moments of joy and sadness all tossed together in a crazy salad. Over time, the tragedies may wear us down so that we no longer fight them. We grow conditioned to the irreversible.
After years of urban living had ground down my childhood love of nature, I found it suddenly rekindled through my friendship with a young photographer named Bob McQuilkin. I was working as a magazine editor at the time, and Bob seemed determined to drag me out of my stale routine and reintroduce me to the joyous world outside.
Once Bob drove his jeep to my office and insisted that I come see two baby owls he'd just rescued. For months he fussed over those scraggly orphaned owls, chasing barn mice and lizards to feed them, then trying to teach them to hunt on their own, and to fly. (Bob teaching a bird to fly!) They'd flutter in soaking wet from a rainstorm—not wise enough yet to find shelter—and Bob would patiently pull out his electric hair dryer and blow them dry.
Two baby raccoons visited Bob's house every few days. (And why not? He would fix them an exotic crabmeat omelette.) On warm summer evenings, he opened the skylight above his bed and an obliging bat named Radar would swoop in with free mosquito-extermination services. You simply could not escape reminders of the natural world in Bob's home—he had built an aquarium into the side of the bathroom wall.
Bob was as fully "alive" as anyone I have ever known. And so when I heard this past October that Bob had died on a scuba-diving assignment in Lake Michigan, I could hardly absorb the news. Bob, dead? It was inconceivable. I could picture Bob doing anything at all—anything but lying still. But that is my last image of him: a 36-year-old body in a blue-plaid flannel shirt lying in a casket. The old, ugly word irreversible came flooding back. I would never ski with Bob again, never sit with him for hours viewing slides, never again eat rattlesnake meat or buffalo burgers at his house.
Susan, his widow, asked me to speak at Bob's memorial service. Without a doubt, it was the hardest thing I have ever done. When I stood before them, the magazine editors and art directors and family and neighbors and friends, they reminded me of little birds—Bob's owls—with their mouths open begging for food. Begging for words of solace, for hope. What could I offer them?
I began by telling them what I had been doing the very afternoon Bob was making his last dive. That Wednesday I was sitting, oblivious, in a café at the University of Chicago, reading The Quest for Beauty, by Rollo May. In that book the famous therapist recalls scenes from his lifelong search for beauty, among them a visit to Mount Athos, a peninsula of monasteries attached to Greece.
One morning, Rollo May happened to stumble upon the celebration of Greek Orthodox Easter, the tail end of a church service that had been proceeding all night long. Incense hung in the air. The only light came from candies. And at the height of that service, the priest gave everyone present three Easter eggs, wonderfully decorated and wrapped in a veil. "Christos Anesti!" he said—"Christ is risen!" Each person there, including Rollo May, responded according to custom, "He is risen indeed!"
Rollo May writes, "I was seized then by a moment of spiritual reality: what would it mean for our world if He had truly risen?"
I read Rollo May's question the afternoon that Bob died, and it kept floating around in my mind, hauntingly, after I heard the news. What did it mean for our world that Christ had risen? Why were monks staying up all night to celebrate it? The early Christians had staked everything on the Resurrection, so much so that the apostle Paul wrote in , "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (15:14, NIV).
In the cloud of grief over Bob's death, I began to see the meaning of Easter in a new light. As a five-year-old on Easter Sunday I had learned the harsh lesson of irreversibility. Ironically, now as an adult I saw that Easter actually offered an awesome promise of reversibility. Nothing—no act of childhood cruelty, no experience of shame or remorse, and, no, not even death—was final. Even that could be reversed.
On Friday Jesus' closest friends had let the relentless crush of history snuff out all their dreams. Two days later, when the crazy rumors about Jesus' missing body shot through Jerusalem, they couldn't dare to believe. They were too conditioned to the irreversible. Only personal appearances by Jesus convinced them that something new, absolutely new, had broken out on earth. When that sank in, those same men who had slunk away in fear at Calvary were soon preaching to large crowds in the streets of Jerusalem.
At Bob McQuilkin's funeral, I rephrased Rollo May's question in the terms of our own grief. What would it mean for us if Bob rose again? We were sitting in a chapel, numbed by three days of grief and sadness, the weight of death bearing down upon us. What would it be like to walk outside to the parking lot and there, to our utter astonishment, find Bob. Bob! With his bounding walk, his crooked grin, and clear grey eyes.
That image gave me a hint of what Jesus' disciples felt on the first Easter. They, too, had grieved for three days. But on Sunday they caught a glimpse of something else, a startling clue to the riddle of the universe. Easter hits a new note, a note of hope and faith that what God did once in a graveyard in Jerusalem, he can and will repeat on a grand scale, for the world. For Bob. For us. Against all odds, the irreversible can be reversed.
The German theologian Jürgen Moltmann expresses in a single sentence the great span from Good Friday to Easter. It is, in fact, a summary of human history, past, present, and future: "God weeps with us so that we may someday laugh with him."
This article originally appeared in the March 17, 1989 issue of Christianity Today.
Philip Yancey is editor at large of Christianity Todayand author of The Bible Jesus Read (Zondervan).
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