A couple of weeks ago, I posted a recipe for Santa Maria Style BBQ with the comment that this is how we celebrate: we eat good food.
This is also how we mourn.
My friend has lost a son this week. My children's friends have lost a brother. Philip Perez was 23.
At a little after two o'clock in the morning on Sunday, he was driving to the family home, a mile south of where I live on the only main road through the area. A mile north of where I live, however, he missed a slight turn on the dark highway. He crossed into the other lane and down into the ditch, then hit a steep embankment, launching him into the air and across a driveway. After flying into a tree, his vehicle landed in the ditch on the other side. The momentum carried the car up the side of the ditch again and it came to rest back on the highway, still pointed toward home, a place Phil would never go again.
The highway patrol says that alcohol and excessive speed were contributing factors. He wasn't wearing a seat belt. The newspaper added these last tidbits of information as sort of an 'I told you so' post script, perhaps to let us all off the hook from feeling their pain. After all, he brought this upon himself, right? But what do those details really change for his family? Phil is dead, whether he was being stupid or not. Parents will bury a child. The family photos will, from now on, feature five siblings instead of six.
My heart has been heavy for the Perez family this week. Their grief has been weighing on me like a backpack full of rocks as I go through the motions of my daily life. Sunday's sermon at church, interestingly enough, was all about truly mourning with those who mourn and not resorting to the easier tactics of tossing out platitudes or encouraging them to get on with their lives so that we don't have to deal with the searing pain of loss with them. When he had lost everything, Job's friends (regardless of how they messed things up once they did open their mouths) sat on the hard ground with their disconsolate friend for seven days and seven nights and didn't say a word, seeing how great his grief was. There are many times when words are appropriate, but that was not one of them.
Last night, the grief of the Perez family was so heavy on me that I had to do something. They didn't need a visitor to have to entertain, and the church family was arranging for evening meals to be provided. What could I do? I didn't think it would be helpful for me to go sit on their front porch in silence for seven days and nights.
Muffins. I could make muffins and deliver them mid-morning, still warm. I know how to do that.
So this morning, I got the kids going on their school work and disappeared into the kitchen to bake. I loaded the finished muffins into a basket, covered them with a towel, and set out for the Perez home.
Pulling into their driveway, I had a moment of panic. What would I say? I couldn't very well just leave the muffins on the porch, ring the bell and run, although I was tempted to do just that. Who would answer the door? What would I say?
What would I say?
What does one say to a family who has just lost a beloved son so suddenly?
I walked up to the door and Art (Mr. Perez) saw me before I had to knock. I was grateful for that, as the simple act of knocking seemed so terribly intrusive right at that moment. The door opened slowly and I realized I still didn't know what to say.
He smiled a small, weak smile in recognition of me and my mission and I felt my arms, like a robot's arms, mechanically push the basket of muffins toward him. His arms seemed just as stiff as he received them.
Just then his wife, my friend Cheri, came around the corner to see who was at the door. She looked so weary, but tried to give me the same brave smile that her husband had so generously given. The corners of my mouth tried to curl up, but I knew the rest of my face wasn't cooperating. "Come in," she offered graciously.
"No, I don't want to stay," I stumbled, "I just wanted to..."
"Ok," she almost smiled again, "then just come in to give me a hug." The woman knew what she needed. I was grateful and stepped into the entry way.
I could see the rest of her family in the dimly lit house. Some of the curtains were closed and the lights were off. Ben (the youngest boy and my son's friend) and Marcus sat on the couch close to one another. Matthew walked into the kitchen tousle-headed and shirtless. Kevin sat with his wife at a table, huddled together over a lap top computer. Little Emily (my daughter's friend) looked toward her parents and me by the door, but kept her distance. No one said anything.
I hugged Cheri tightly, but it wasn't for long enough. No hug could have been long enough. Art reached his arms out to me, too. I'd never hugged him before, but I was happy to be given the invitation to do it and I folded my arms around him.
I looked back at Cheri again. Our eyes locked there in the entry way. Hers looked weary and moist. Mine just searched her face. We didn't speak. The longer I looked into her eyes, the more I could feel my own filling with tears. I couldn't think of a single thing to say, so I just stood there.
In any other situation, I would say that it was an awkward silence, but it didn't feel that way for me, and Cheri's steady gaze told me she didn't find the silence awkward either. To have clumsily thrown cumbersome words around would have been awkward, but silence felt completely appropriate.
After a moment, I nodded. Somehow, her eyes communicated that she knew my simple nod meant all the things I couldn't say. It meant I was so terribly sorry that Phil was gone. It meant that I would do anything I could to be helpful, that I only live a mile away. It meant that I was aware that muffins didn't make much difference at all, but it was the best idea I could think of at the time. It meant that I didn't understand why it had to happen that way, and that I understood that she didn't understand either. It meant that I wished I had something significant to say, but couldn't come up with anything. She knew my heart. I had done what I could. And she appreciated it. Her eyes communicated volumes where words failed. Windows to the soul and all that.
She nodded back at me, smiled through her tears and said simply, "Ok, then."
"Ok," I croaked as the tears threatened to spill over. I nodded helplessly again.
Art broke the stare-fest by thanking me for coming by and requesting that we pray for them. He knew what he needed, too. Again I was grateful.
"Oh! We are," I replied to his request, and noticed my voice had that husky quality that deep emotion brings.
I smiled at them both and turned to go. I let myself out, climbed into my car and cried quietly as I drove the mile back to my house.
Sometimes muffins and silence are all you have to give.