The Other Side of Something
by Shaun Stevenson
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Both caskets were up front, the light tan one on the right had a picture of Brynn, forty-six, beside it. The small, dark brown one on the left sat beneath a school picture of Chase, ten. Flowers covered the tops of both caskets, pinks, whites, and blues cascading in the light and falling dully onto the wood.
I sat in a pew in the back row, falling into the soft padding behind my back. Dave, Mom, and Heather sat beside me, all with large eyes. Large eyes that had two little bags, one beneath each eye. Mom sniffed, and Heather followed with one of her own. I hadn't cried yet.
Pastor Aylward stepped up behind the podium, clearing his throat twice before any words would move out of his mouth and into our ears. “I want to welcome you all today to the homecoming of Brynn, a mother, a singer, an inspirational speaker, and friend, and of Chase, a son, fifth grader, and best friend. Chase and Brynn both passed away last Wednesday when they were hit in a car accident near Government Camp. We grieve their loss, but we can remember that both of them were only passing through.”
Passing through... Chase had been in one of my classes just the other night at Bible Club, the Wednesday night group for kids at Southwest Bible Church. We used the second grade Sunday School room for a story time. I had rushed that night, scheduled to tell a story in one of the fifteen minute rotations, but completely unsure of what to talk about. I had rummaged through the Bible on the desk, trying to find a story that would be fun to tell. I loved telling stories, and could spit them off the top of my head if I had to. Not finding a good Bible story to tell, I remembered a story I had written a year before and decided it would have to do. With only a few minutes before the first group of kids – second graders – came through the door, I jotted down my notes. When they came into my room, I told the kids about a boy who went into a cemetery on a dare from his friends and then met the cranky old care-taker of the graveyard.
While Chase's group was leaving, he stopped, rubbed his chin and then his blond head. “You know, Shaun, when you tell a story, it's like it's really happening right then.”
He turned and was the last one to leave the room. I watched him leave, completely unaware that he would be dead in two weeks.
I came home from the memorial service in silence. I didn't sing along with the radio, I just listened. I didn't run to my dog Amber when I came in the house, I just went straight upstairs.
I stopped at the doorway to my room, staring at the pile of songbooks covering the floor. I had left them after one of my piano lessons in the tote bag I carried, and in a hurry to reload the bag with my school books, I had dumped every songbook onto the floor of my bedroom. I had a recital coming up at the end of the month, and if I didn't have my pieces ready, then it would be very embarrassing for my piano teacher. I had been working on one piece, “The Offering”, a short, two-page, piano-driven melody. But the music had haunted me lately – I could never quite get through the notes to the last measure. I should practice.
But I couldn't. I wanted to read.
I threw my tote bag against the bed, pushed my jeans and jackets off the edge, and propped both of my pillows up against the back of the dresser. I twisted the plastic stick hanging from the blinds and opened the slats so I could see the street outside piled high with cars nearly on top of each other.
I pulled my book off the shelf beside the bed, staring at the cover. Down in the corner was a picture of Corrie ten Boom, hair pulled into a bun circling the top of her head. She smiled only slightly, as if holding a secret from me – a secret that must have been held inside The Five Silent Years of Corrie ten Boom. I flipped open the pages and read.
I read about this old Dutch woman, suffering a stroke in the middle of the night, knocking the water glass and a pile of books from the night stand. And then the three hard years following the first stroke, which had left Corrie without speech. This woman, who had been through a Nazi concentration camp in World War II and survived, this woman who had hidden Jews in her upstairs room to keep them from the Gestapo, this woman who had traveled the world for nearly thirty years to tell everyone she met her personal stories, had been bed ridden by as mysterious a thing as a stroke. She could no longer communicate with the people around her. It would take elaborate guessing games for her caretaker, Pamela, to discover what Corrie was trying to tell her.
Corrie never retreated from the world. She continued to meet people who would come to her home in Orange County to spend simple time with her. Pamela would position Corrie so that when the guest came through the bedroom door, the old woman was facing the hallway and her visitor. She would stare at the person for a long time – not with an empty stare, but a stare that held attention and communicated – I know you're here. I want to hear what you want to say.
I closed the book. I felt disconnected from the room around me. From the everyday simple things: eating, sleeping, my home, my car, the problems at work. I turned to the window, pulling on the cord that would take the blinds clinking all the way to the top of the window frame. I stared for a long time at the sky – watching the swirls in the gray clouds, watching the rain drops patter to the grass a story beneath me.
I closed my eyes. And dreamed. And saw.
I saw a man holding a long, unlit sparkler in his hand, standing on the outskirts of a forest stretching to the northern curve of the horizon. The forest burned. Fire licked up every dry needle, ran up every trunk, burst out the top of every tree, sending crows and ravens scattering into the air. The man had his back facing away from the forest, watching a dead plain rushing away from the forest. Dirt ran to the east, stretching over the horizon. A little old lady hobbled up to the man, putting a wrinkled hand onto his back, and pushing her glasses up against her nose, she turned him around, pointing to the forest. The man took his sparkler and took a step in the direction of the fire. He stopped, staring at the blaze running rampant throughout the trees before him. With a careful hand, he reached his sparkler out just enough to light it in the fire. The sparkles burst from the tip, red, green, yellow. He waved the sparkler through the air, watching, smiling. He held the sparkler into the air, pointed at it, showed it to the old lady. She smiled, and then gave him another push, one that sent his entire body straight into the fire. He disappeared into a flume of smoke and flame, sending the reds and oranges up and down his body. For a moment I watched, waiting for him to step back out, calling him, hoping he had not perished in the heat. I only had to wait a moment before he stepped back out of the woods, still burning brightly, the flames seeping out of his skin, but not damaging it. Each step he took left a small bit of flame behind on the ground – a burning patch of grass. He moved – across – past – out into the desert, each footprint springing to life with burning grass. A word glowed on his back – etched into his skin: “Jeremiah.”
I opened my eyes, watching the dream flood back through my mind. I felt the heat of the fire on my own skin, I felt the eyes of that man the second he stepped from the trees – a look of depth – of knowing – emanating from those eyes. And the word. Jeremiah. “Nothing could come close to that fire...” I whispered, looking at the cover of the book that had fallen onto my stomach while I slept.
Yawn. I sat up. I slid the bookmark between the pages and put the book back on the shelf on top of my worn Bible. The cover was a faded blue, hardback, the binding falling apart from use. A name tag was on the corner with “Shaun” written across it in black ink. Above that was a sticker my sister must have given me a week ago at church: a little lightbulb with a face smiling at me.
I snatched up the Bible, feeling its weight in my hands, glancing only once to the face of Corrie ten Boom. I smiled, and opened the front cover and saw song lyrics I had written down not that long ago: I was looking to myself, and I forgot the power of God – I was standing with a sparkler in my hand. While I stood so proud and profound, You came and burned this whole place down; now that's a fire -
I hadn't finished the sentence. “I didn't finish...” I jumped up from the bed, and ran to my closet where I kept my boxes and boxes of CD cases. I hurried through them, looking for the one that held my song. I knew the cover well – Sara Groves stared off the page, the slightest bit of a smile on her lips. Down in the left corner was the album title: The Other Side of Something. There. The third box, fourth one in. I pulled out the case, hurriedly flipped it open and struggled to get the booklet out of the front flap. The same smile – the same look of holding secrets.
The song lyrics were on the second page. Under the song title, “Jeremiah”, I find the rest of the words I was looking for: I was caught up in this vice and its power to entice; I was dwelling on my hopelessness and doubt. With the slightest invitation You came with total detonation; now that's a fire. I was warming my hands by this little light of mine, but now I know it's time to come in from the cold. Jeremiah.
I slowly closed the booklet, taking one last look at Sara Groves, and seeing her look back at me: I know you're there. I want to hear what you have to say.
I stepped to my computer screen, a document open, cursor blinking, ready. I pushed books off my chair and my desk, allowing enough room to rest both wrists on the wood. I stared at the blank page. What did I have to say? What would matter? What would last?
Only the week before I had met with Elizabeth Knight, my writing teacher, to discuss my essays for the class I was taking. I asked her about a couple of essays I had written for the class, and she gave me a general opinion on both. But at the end of the meeting she said, “Shaun, to be completely honest, I think... well... your writing has been a little flat this term.”
I sat back in the orange chair I had found and twisted my mouth to one side, thinking. “Yeah.... What do you think...?”
Liz Knight leaned back in her own chair, glancing at the ceiling tiles. After a moment, she pushed back her reddish hair, leaned forward in the chair, and said, “I think you're not writing about what you're really interested in. What does Shaun Stevenson really want to write about? What do you think about?”
I didn't think. I stopped staring. I started writing. I started moving my fingers across the keys, hearing the little tattle of typing. And I wrote this. A personal essay. And as I wrote, I watched the words flow onto the pages. I watched the thoughts link together. I saw my words filling the empty space. I saw the face of Corrie ten Boom smiling at me, standing right beside Sara Groves. Their smiles grew into grins, and then their gazes left me and moved onto a third person, someone I was only just becoming acquainted with. And one of his names is Jeremiah.
(c) 2006 Shaun Stevenson, "Jeremiah" lyrics (c) 2004 Sara Groves
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