On Tuesday, October 21, 1975, Carlton Fisk of the Boston Red Sox hit a homerun in the bottom of the 12th to win Game Six of the World Series. A rat was perched on the leg of the centerfield cameraman. Instead of following the ball, the cameraman stayed on home plate as Fisk watched the ball fly toward the left field pole, waving his arms as if to keep the ball fair. As the ball hit the pole, Fisk jumped with his arms extended, the crowd cheering in the background.
ESPN named Fisk's homerun the sixth greatest homerun of all time. It has been shown hundreds of times since. I hate that homerun.
On Friday, October 17, 1975, four days prior, my mother died. She was 43; I was 12. My brothers were all teenagers, and my sister was 9. I was asleep Saturday morning when my father entered my room and opened all the blinds. He sat on my bed and told me Mom had died. Although she had been sick with cancer for nearly two years, in and out of the hospital, I thought she was coming home Friday night. I've always been a light sleeper, and that night I heard commotion downstairs. I almost got out of bed to greet her, but thought, I'll see her tomorrow. The next day I learned I would never see her again.
That morning, my sister and I watched Hong Kong Phooey and other cartoons in silence. A stream of people visited our house that weekend, each bringing food. I stayed outside as much as possible, playing basketball and football and hanging out with friends. The house had a mausoleum-like atmosphere. I was hoping to avoid discussing what had happened—as if by not talking about it, it hadn't.
Two days later, we flew to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where my mother grew up. It was the first time I remember being on an airplane. We lived in Northern Virginia, six hours away, and I didn't understand why we were now flying. I eventually realized that in addition to my father, brothers, sister, and me, the airplane was transporting my mother in a coffin.
My sister, father, and I stayed with my Uncle Sid, Aunt Mary, and cousin Wally. My father and I slept in the same room. One night after turning out the lights, Dad asked me how I was doing. I said I was fine. I should have told him I was having a bad dream from which I couldn't wake. It was the last time he asked me. Once the week was over, no one talked about Mom. It was as if she had become a childhood memory, like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. I don't blame my father for anything. He wasn't given an instruction manual on how to be a widower at 46 with five children.
On Tuesday, I didn't go to the visitation. Instead I watched the World Series with Wally. I didn't care who won the game, but as Fisk hit the game-ending homerun, Wally and I got caught up in the moment of the event. NBC replayed it over and over again until it was engrained in my mind. The next day, my family buried my mother.
I was distracted at the graveside service by the sea of headstones, as far as my eyes could see. As we walked to the limousine after the service, my oldest brother was walking ahead of me. I ran to catch up to him, and as I reached him I saw he was crying. He is six years older than me and, from my child's perspective, was larger than life. He was a tower of strength, the brother I could count on to defend and protect me. Seeing him cry was jarring, more evidence that the world I had known had ended.
After the funeral, Uncle Bill and Aunt Polly took me and my sister to visit my mother's mother, who was living in a nursing home. I vaguely understood that her mind wasn't working properly, that there was a disconnect between reality and her perception of it. As we visited, I wasn't sure if she knew her daughter had died. Then, in a moment of lucidity, she said that children aren't supposed to die before parents and began to cry.
Samuel Worth Madison and Bessie Smith Madison are buried next to my mother. Both were born in 1888. Samuel died in 1966; Bessie in 1970. Next to them, Samuel Wadsworth Madison Jr. is buried. He was born February 11, 1918, and died July 4, 1918. Junior didn't live even six months. Children aren't supposed to die before parents, but they do. That was one of the last times I saw my grandmother. She died the week after I was graduated from high school, reinforcing what was slowly becoming my perception of reality: Everything dies. Dead people, dead hopes, dead dreams, dead marriages, dead friendships, dead jobs.
Defined By Mourning
The day after my mom died, I told a neighbor I was glad, so that she wouldn't have to suffer anymore. While sincere, I didn't know what I was saying. When someone you love dies, Mark Twain said, it's like your house has burnt down; it isn't for years that you realize the extent of your loss. I'm not sure if I have realized it fully even yet.
Soon I grew accustomed to coming home to an empty house. My two oldest brothers were in college, and my other brother stayed away from home as much as possible. We never talked about my mother and soon stopped talking altogether. In our house, there was always noise but little communication. My last year in high school, my dad and my sister and I often would eat dinner in silence.
Some psychologists hypothesize on the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I flirted with denial at times. For years, I'd dream that my mother wasn't dead. She had been at some type of medical clinic for years, and one day she unexpectedly and unannounced returned home. It wasn't denial so much as avoidance. I skipped the bargaining stage and camped out in the anger and depression stages. I never came close to reaching the acceptance stage. My anger wasn't directed at anyone in particular, even God, if I even believed there was a God. It was directed at death itself, as if death were some person. Like the hooded chess player in Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, death deliberately and maliciously killed my mother. Had I the ability to kill death, I would have done it.
Even when I was having a good time, at my core I was defined by mourning. My hope for healing was captured by Abraham Lincoln in a letter to Fanny McCullough upon the Civil War death of her father. Lincoln observed that "in this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares." Fanny's hope was that "perfect relief is not possible, except with time." My hope too was with the passage of time, the wound would heal. But time did not heal my wound; it made it worse. An untreated physical wound can result in infection or nerve damage, causing numbness, pain, or loss of feeling. Slowly over time, my heart became numbed, unable to feel anything except pain.
The Western calendar is divided between B.C. and A.D, with the birth of Christ marking the transition from one era to the other. My life could be divided between pre-October 1975 and post-October 1975. Carlton Fisk's homerun became a permanent marker of the transition from one period to the other, from carefree childhood to adult loss, disappointment, and pain.
By 1987, I was emotionally wounded and intellectually confused. It was in that context that I became a Christian. I wasn't pursuing God but realized that he was pursuing me. From April to August 1987, God was like what Francis Thompson famously described as the hound of heaven, on my tail.
I was in a bookstore one afternoon that year and wandered into the Religion section, one I don't remember being in before. I noticed Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. Although I didn't hear an audible voice, it was if someone said to me, "Buy that book." After reading the first section, "Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe," I was intellectually convinced of the existence of God.
Around this time, I began to sense a tangible presence in my room every night. It was a wooing presence, like a father inviting his wayward son home. I tried to ignore it and its invitation, but it would not leave me alone. It disturbed my sleep. Somehow I understood that this presence was the same God whom Lewis had described. I began reading the New Testament and slowly became convinced of the truth of what it teaches about God and Jesus and sin and death and resurrection. Up to that point, "Jesus Christ" had been a punch line or a curse. I didn't want it to be true but could no longer deny that it was.
Both the intellectual understanding and the experience of God brought me to the point where I was confronted with Jesus' invitation to his disciples: Follow me. God was not going to float into my life through the back door. I understood that committing my life to Christ was like getting married. I couldn't reverse it, and I was afraid of the unknown. After continued wrestling with the presence of God, I reached a point where I thought, If I don't do this now, then I'll never do it. To echo Lewis, in the early morning hours of August 9, 1987, I admitted that God was God and knelt and prayed, perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in all the world. And like Lewis, I didn't see then what is clear and precious: the divine humility that will accept a convert even on such terms. A couple days later, I told a Christian friend that I had committed my life to Jesus. He replied, "Do it every day."
Four days later, I turned 24. I realized my perception of reality had been wrong. I had been like the Japanese solider pictured in a wheelchair, weeping, as he arrived to a hero's welcome at the Tokyo airport. He had spent 28 years in the jungles of Guam thinking that Japan was still fighting World War II. He spent half his life out of touch with reality. I spent nearly half my life the same, thinking that death, mourning, and pain were the fundamental realities of the world.
That October 17, one of my cousins got married in Winston-Salem. It was held on the anniversary of my mother's death. My father and two oldest brothers and I visited her grave that day, the first time I had been there since her funeral. After a few minutes, my oldest brother walked away, unable to cope. Shortly thereafter, my father walked away crying. It was the first time I had seen him cry. Eventually, my other brother walked away, leaving me alone by the grave. And I realized I no longer hurt. The wound had begun to heal.
Being new to faith, I was not aware that Jesus was sent to heal the brokenhearted and to bind up their wounds. In that place of death, I thanked the God of the living for his presence and prayed he would heal my family, cognizant for the first time that life in Christ was the fundamental reality of the world. My healing was not instantaneous and complete like Lazarus being raised from the dead. I was more the blind man, healing in part at first, seeing things as blurry objects before gaining total clarity.
Time did not heal my wound; Jesus did. October is still a reminder of my mother's death, but it's no longer a season of pain. I even look forward to the World Series, knowing I'll see Carlton Fisk side-stepping his way to first base, waving his arms trying to keep the ball fair. Watching the video stings occasionally, but it no longer produces deep sadness. I am no longer paralyzed by my mother's death.
A World of Resurrection
The biblical people I most identify with are the two disciples who encounter the resurrected Jesus as they walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Like me, their world had been shattered by the death of someone they love. They had hoped Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah who would rescue Israel. They had hoped that things would be different. They had hoped that things were going to work out the way they wanted. They had hoped things would change. It all ends in crucifixion.
For years, I had hoped my mother would not have died when she did. I had hoped my life would have been different. I had hoped that I was not defined by death and mourning. My mother's death was the end of the story. All that was left was for me to die one day. All I saw was death. All the disciples saw was crucifixion, but what they did not see in Jesus' crucifixion is that God was submitting himself to and participating in a world where so much fails to work out the way we want or plan or expect. He doesn't stand aloof, accepting the results. God is not a spectator in heaven, untouched by suffering, pain and death. God enters our world of crucifixion and makes it a world of resurrection.
I now react to Carlton Fisk's homerun with what Lewis called Sehnsucht, the longing "to find the place where all the beauty came from," my country, the place where I ought to have been born, the longing for home. It is a bitter reminder that we were not meant for death yet daily experience the many faces of it, waiting for the time when death itself will die. The Bible reveals very little about heaven. But it speaks of a new earth and a new heaven, where God will dwell with us, where he will wipe away every tear, where there no longer will be any death or mourning or crying or pain.
When I was in my 20s and 30s, I thought it was stupid to dream of heaven. Now that I'm 50, I long for it—for the time when death will be destroyed, when tears will be wiped away, and when people will mourn no more. I long for the time when Carlton Fisk's homerun no longer will sting.
Scott Carney is a graduate of the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary and Southern Evangelical Seminary. He lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and enjoys Civil War history, the short stories of Flannery O'Connor, the movies of Martin Scorsese, the guitar playing of Duane Allman, and seeing God glorified in and through the lives of broken people.