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I was recently walking through the public square, and I was suddenly struck by a profound absence of laughter. I turned to my friend and asked, “Is it just me? Or have we lost our humor lately?”
He looked at me with a blank stare and replied, “I think it’s just you, dummy!” And that made me smile. Thank goodness for good friends! But I wasn’t sure that he was right, so I decided to dig a little deeper; because from what I could see, nobody out here is laughing very much.
So I went to visit a renowned Humorologist, who asked to remain anonymous, and he pulled out numerous charts and graphs to help explain this phenomena. For decades, apparently, there has been a steady decline in the volume of jokes, jests, wisecracks and witticisms in the public arena; and comedy has been largely replaced by accusations, attacks and offense.
This erudite Comeditician went on to explain to me that in recent years there has been a dramatic reduction in the range of our natural comedic habitat. This has occurred throughout much of the world, but particularly within our own country’s borders. Sadly, the rapid expansion of invasive species, such as intolerance, narrow-mindedness, fear and pride, have been choking comedy out of our natural landscape. And it is this sudden and extreme loss of habitat which has led to a precipitous decline in the numbers of comedians in our land. Of those who remain, most are in hiding, and some even fear for their lives. Imagine that!
Shocked by this revelation of his, I replied I couldn’t quite believe that it has come to this. Surely, people wouldn’t resort to violence over a simple joke! To which, he replied with the following anecdote to illustrate his point:
“For instance,” he said. “Not long ago it was recorded in The Sadtown Gazette, that one resident, a young woman by the name of Samantha Badcandy of Joyless MN, that one day while taking a walk, she sighted a White-Breasted Jester, (among the last ever to be seen in that part of the country). Apparently, it made several quips about the weather, which made her chuckle, but then when it accidentally made a spicy observation about her figure, she quickly took offence, pulled out a rifle, and shot it dead. It was believed to have been the last of its kind in Minnesota. When asked why she killed the creature, she replied, ‘Some things just aren’t funny!'”
“Comedians have it very tough nowadays, as their habitat dwindles, and their food supplies become scarcer,” the Historian of histrionics continued. “Comedy needs good-naturedness, openness, and humility in order to flourish. But these are in short supply nowadays. Today, true comedy is to be found only in private homes (where it is safe to practice it), Zoos (where the animals have maintained their good humor and simplicity), and in special Comedy-Reserves, lands set aside for the protection and preservation of comedians.”
He pulled out several more charts and graphs, and then pointed to a map showing the shrinking range where comedians can still safely roam without fear. “It used to be, in times past, that cities and college campuses were where you would most likely see a comedian, or even find flocks of them gathered together. But now, these locations are among the most dangerous for them; and few jokesters are actually seen any longer in the wild.”
I left the Scholar of silliness, feeling a bit dejected, but still hopeful that all is not yet lost. I decided to visit one of the Comedy-Reserves that he had described, in hopes of learning more about how comedians are being rescued and protected from the ill-humored, and to find out what the future of laughter might be.
The Society for the Preservation of Really Funny People administers one such human-nature reserve on an undisclosed island off the coast of…I’d better not say; which I have been asked to keep secret (for the protection of their residents). At this preserve, they are cautiously optimistic. “We have a lot of work still ahead of us, obviously, but we are seeing our comedians thrive once again here, now that they are free from the environment of fear, and the climate of shame that they had been suffering within. Here, they can tell a good joke without looking over their shoulder. We are very hopeful that eventually we can reintroduce most of our comedians back into their native habitats once again.”
As I was preparing to leave the Island of Endangered Comics, one of the caretakers had a final parting comment, which filled me with hope and which I’ve never forgotten. She said to me, “One of our comedians shared with me something important about comedy that people often overlook. He said that, humor ultimately is about love. It’s love that allows us to laugh at ourselves, and to laugh at each other. And that’s a very good thing!”
I hadn’t thought about that before, but decided it is true. Today, I’m hopeful and anticipating with amusement, for the time when our world is safe again to release the comedians into the wild; and for the time when we will see them roaming freely once again, and cracking jokes with impunity.
My memories turn back to the time when Father Davidson posed a question at the campfire, “Can we endure living our lives in the face of mystery?” If we are truly unable to uncover, or discover the answers to the most pressing questions of life, is that tolerable? Now, as I await the Father’s funeral, I consider, what to me seems to be, the most difficult of all mysteries: death.
Death has made me want to run, to run as fast as I possibly can; or to hide my face from death and pray that it would go away—ceasing to exist—and trouble me no longer. I have been angry in the face of death, and horrified by its mercilessness; and I have tried to negotiate with death, hoping that it might have a heart. But from the perspective of the living, death appears to be wholly cold and unfeeling.
Again and again I come back to: what is death? In a spiritual or metaphysical sense, what is its meaning, and purpose; what value does it have…and does it even have any value? If it is meaningless, then how much more horrible it must be, than even my worst nightmare has envisioned.
Yet, when my memories turn to the story of Christ’s resurrection, and the hope found in Jesus Christ—bringing back to life his dear friend Lazarus, and his own ultimate triumph over death—I do feel my heart quicken, and my hopes are raised. Perhaps this is the answer I am seeking, and the very thing which will allow me to stand firm in the face of death.
But even if this is the answer, it is still shrouded entirely within a mystery; what are we resurrected into, what really exists on the other side of the grave? Can I tolerate not knowing anything tangible about this; and if I can’t tolerate it, then am I resigned to ignore the problem, and driven to running or hiding from it for the duration of this lifetime? Or will the mystery rather, thrust me into the arms of faith?
I attended Father Davidson’s funeral hoping to discover something useful in regards to the mystery of death; and possibly to discover the faith that might open a door, or shed further light on the world beyond the grave. It was a beautiful Orthodox funeral, and as the Beatitudes were sung, so many of them caused me to reflect upon the life of Father Davidson and how he embodied these blessed virtues. He had certainly lived a beautiful life, no doubt—at least in my mind there was no doubt—but what about his death? Why now? And was there anything beautiful about that?
The service ended with a familiar hymn, appealing to God to remember the departed forever—memory eternal—for the Lord to keep Father Davidson eternally in remembrance. And I thought back to the scene in which I found Father Davidson communing with his icons, and with the cross of Christ before him. It had felt to me then—as throughout most of his life—that Father Davidson was already remembered by God even in this life, and was already living in communion with the Lord.
Father Davidson once said that love allows us to see the truth, and love reveals things previously hidden from view. It is only love which allows us to see beauty in this world; and perhaps only love, also allows us to see through death. Might love give us the eyes to pierce death’s veil; and might love reveal something of what is hidden beyond the grave? Father Davidson loved the Lord with all his heart; so I can believe that his devotion to God allowed him to see where he was going that final night—perhaps the heavens parted as he sat praying, and he saw paradise.
Following the service, I wandered through the cemetery, reading the gravestones while thinking further about life and death. Father Seraphim approached me, at the conclusion of Father Davidson’s graveside service, on his way back to the church. After exchanging a few pleasantries and heartfelt comments about our departed friend, I posed a question: “Do you remember, the last time we were here, we talked about death…you commented that Josh knew how to die in every moment…do you recall that?”
“Yes I do.”
“You know, it’s kind of funny…I mean, maybe cliché…but I always thought he’d die as a martyr. He seemed the type that would die that way,” I said.
“But he did, didn’t he?! Didn’t he die every day in that way?…he didn’t care if he looked the fool, he never cared if he didn’t know the correct answer…he lost everything willingly, he destroyed ambition and striving…and his life was a prayer for others, and continual action for God. He quieted himself, and he heard the Lord,” Father Seraphim concluded, “I think he did die as a martyr, in complete service to others.”
“Yes, I see your point. Of course, that’s true. He lived a beautiful life, I agree; and the death that you are describing is also beautiful. But still…it bothers me…it disturbs me, his death and the loss caused by it…I think about Amelia’s sorrow…his death may be beautiful, but it still feels wrong. I can’t make peace with death—the pain of it, the horror and suffering surrounding it.”
“I think it is difficult to see death clearly, until it is time for us to see; or perhaps until we’re ready to see it. I believe that Josh prepared himself to see this, earlier than most of us; and I think his life was mainly about trying to help the rest of us to see—not only about death, but about a true life as well. The person who lives their life for God…I believe…can see death differently, than those of us who don’t.”
“A beautiful life, that I’ve seen and can understand; but a perfect death, I think, must be a matter of faith,” I concluded.
“Although they are interconnected, I believe, and aspects of the same life—a beautiful life is one lived for others, and a perfect death is a life lived for God,” Father Seraphim concluded.
I ended the day in Father Davidson’s orchard; which for me had always possessed an element of the Garden of Eden, with its multitudinous variety of fruits, and abundance of life. Of all places to pay tribute to the Father, here seemed to me the best and most appropriate.
I stood on the grassy slope, looking down towards the Father’s cabin, and out across the hillside to the ocean in the distance. The setting sun cast its fiery glow upon the cloudy sky and the shimmering waves; his cabin was transformed into a dark silhouette though with its stovepipe chimney flashing brilliantly like a flaming sword. And as the waning light softened, I heard an owl call out from a nearby perch, and I felt a breeze touch my face before rustling into the trees behind me.
I was grateful that Father Davidson had invited me here, and he had wanted to share his life with me; that he allowed me to know him in such detail, never hiding the intimate details of his life, but revealing them unabashedly. When we first met, Father Davidson had posed a question to me, asking if I were friend or foe. I answered that I hoped to be his friend, and he replied: “We shall see.”
At the time, it seemed a very odd thing to ask, but now I feel that he was asking me something much broader than merely whether I would be his particular friend or not; it was really an invitation to be like him. And his question, was would I be a friend to all creation?
Then, I didn’t know. But now I can say: “Yes, Father Davidson, I will be your friend!”
* * *
It was just before sunset when Amelia parked her car and ran through the orchard towards her brother’s cabin. The sun cast a warm golden-orange hue across the grassy meadow, illuminating each strand beautifully, and turning the edges of the fruit trees a molten red. Long shadows stretched across her path as she ran; and pockets of darkness gathered between the trees as the night began to overtake the faltering day.
Up ahead Amelia saw thin strands of grey and black smoke twisting up into the sky from the cabin’s stovepipe chimney. Seeing this gave Amelia comfort, and she used this observation to convince herself that she was overreacting. Deirdre was right, Josh was still young and in good condition; a small accident like falling off a wall couldn’t be enough to…she wasn’t able to finish the thought. As she approached the cabin she could see light coming out through the window—another good sign—and everything appeared ordinary. His door was shut, and she was reluctant to knock; she didn’t want to disturb him.
Walking gingerly up to the edge of his front deck she craned her neck and stretched up onto her toes to try to get a glimpse into the cabin through the window. The curtains were drawn but they were sheer, and they only muted the view slightly; through them, she could see her brother’s back as he sat in the far corner of the room, presumably praying. She turned and sat on the edge of the deck for a moment, collecting herself; her pulse had been racing and she had become short of breath. Forcing herself to breathe deeply, she laughed, and scolded herself for worrying without cause. It was really a beautiful night, and she had hardly noticed because of her unfounded fears. She looked around at her surroundings and felt a depth of gratitude for everything around her; ‘what an amazing place we live’, she thought to herself. But mostly she was grateful that her brother was praying inside his cabin like he always did, and that nothing horrible had happened to shatter the beauty of the life she loved.
Amelia walked back to the house feeling relieved and at peace; her contentment allowed her mind to drift. She thought about her meeting earlier with Deirdre. She resolved to devote herself to Deirdre; the poor woman had nobody, no family in this world any longer. She thought about Richard and how she missed him, though she was glad he found a place where he belonged, and where he was safe and happy. She was surprised when her thoughts also turned to Father Seraphim, who had befriended Richard and her brother, and had become such an important influence in their lives. He always attempted to win her over as well, and she always resisted, though in a friendly way. She liked him because he had a good heart and was sincere. Suddenly she also thought about Apollo, and his wife Lilian, the owners of the café, and their friend Dian; she doubted their goodness. But in the midst of the equanimity she was currently feeling towards all things at that moment, she decided to give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they too had goodness within them, and she should seek to discover it. She knew her brother would encourage this, and would approve her efforts to befriend them.
As Amelia went into her house for the night and closed the door behind her, the campfire down in the orchard was just getting started. It had been a long time since I had attended, not since the previous fall; but now that I had seen Father Davidson around town, I anticipated that he might begin his stories once again, so I took a seat and waited hopefully for him to join us. And I was concerned about his health, after his fall at Deirdre’s, so I also came to make sure he was feeling better.
The evening wore on, as the usual folks gathered and were seated around the fire. Everyone was cheerful to see one another again after the long winter; but after the initial cavalcade of conversation—general questions about how we all were doing, and what we did during the winter—the group fell more or less quiet, waiting for Father Davidson. It was a cool and peaceful night; it was strikingly silent, few animals stirred, no owls called, and the wind was noticeably absent. As I think back, it was a strange night—I suppose mainly due to the silence—it felt as though the night were holding its breath, and the earth was also waiting in hushed expectation.
As I sat, I remembered back to the stories Father Davidson told about his early experiences with silence, in the desert, and the uneasiness he experienced there; how, he would explain, that silence brought with it, at first a kind of terror, and discomfort deep within us, that would only dissipate as one sat with it, and faced it, confronting it and then finally becoming one with it. Stillness came from silence, he would say, though it was a state of being, and not an absence of sound; and it was the doorway to a deeper relationship with oneself, and ultimately the doorway into a true relationship with God.
One by one the group thinned, as folks went off to bed. And I struggled to stay alert to the silence I felt during this unusual night; trying to do as Father Davidson taught, to not run or fight it, but to learn from it. Finally, I was alone at the campfire, and the embers were losing their color and their heat; the uneasiness I had been feeling faded as I grew tired, though it didn’t go away. I decided to walk down to the Father’s cabin and maybe lay in the hammock for a while before driving home.
Smoke rose from his chimney and a faint light flickered from his window; I assumed he must have been praying, and the light from his candles or oil lamps, was causing the flickering. I didn’t want to disturb him, so I walked to the cherry tree and climbed into the hammock. I glanced at my watch, and noted the time was just before midnight, before I drifted off to sleep for a few hours. I was startled awake some time later by a loud sound coming from the cabin, though it may have been a dream. I woke feeling disoriented and unsure what exactly had caused me to stir. But I glanced towards the cabin and was startled fully awake.
A warm but bright light emanated from his windows and his door was open. Assuming he had stoked the fire in his stove, and had come outside, I glanced around to see if I could find him. The night was still unusually still and silent, which caused me to shudder; I was still far from mastering the silence in the way that Father Davidson had described. I approached his cabin slowly and cautiously, though I can’t say why, and from a safe distance I peered in through the open door. The fire was burning brightly in the stove and appeared to have been recently tended; but the room was quiet, and nobody stirred inside.
I walked around to both sides of the cabin, looking for Father Davidson, and I called his name quietly; but there was no reply. I considered he may have walked up to the house, but it was unusual for him to leave his door open. I took a step or two up his front stairs and looked through the open door to see if he might be asleep in his bed, but it was made and didn’t appear to have been slept in that night. The open door blocked my view towards his prayer corner, so finally I determined that he must be deep in prayer on the other side of the door; having recently stoked the fire, perhaps getting too hot and thus opening the door for a little fresh air, he then returned to his corner to pray.
I breathed a sigh of relief at this thought, and decided to return to my hammock for a little more sleep before heading home in the morning. But the night was getting cooler, and perhaps he would like his door closed now; it was very strange that he left it open. So I climbed the remaining steps and leaned in to grab the doorknob, intending to pull it shut. But curiosity caused me to push it further open instead; I just wanted to make certain my theory was correct and he was inside.
I was right, there he was seated in his chair, with his back to me, facing his cross and icons. The light from several oil lamps and candles reflected in the icons on the walls and illuminated the cross which hung at the center of them all. From my perspective, Father Davidson appeared to be among family; sitting peacefully in the midst of them, and intimately in communion with his beloved. My gaze rested for a few moments upon Christ as he hung on the cross, several feet in front of Father Davidson. Jesus was crucified, and his head lay tilted slightly to the right, resting against his chest and shoulder; it was a very familiar scene for me, and one I knew since childhood. My eyes then fell upon Father Davidson, and I smiled gratefully as I watched him sit there, seemingly in the depths of prayer with the one he loved.
It was a beautiful scene of peace, and spiritual tranquility. I stood silently, enjoying this intimate glimpse into the life of Father Davidson; I felt as though I had been given a gift then—granted participation in his communion with God.
I was about to turn and leave when something about the Father caught my eye, and seemed strange. His head was tilted slightly to the side and was resting forward on his chest; from behind it had, at first, appeared to be a prayerful pose. But upon second glance it didn’t look right to me. I called out to him quietly, “Father Davidson…are you okay?…Father Davidson?”
I walked closer and knelt beside him, looking up into his face. His eyes were softly open, squinting slightly as was their custom; but they were vacant now, and revealed to me that Father Davidson was no longer with us.
* * *
Father Davidson woke early and left Deirdre’s house while she was still asleep. He rode his usual route around town, purchasing or gathering various things into little white packages, tied up with string, and hung from his bicycle; they were life essentials which he would give to his friends later that day, when he returned to the orchard. On his way back home he stopped briefly at his sister’s shop to take care of some business inside with Amelia. That completed, he mounted his bicycle again, and rode a wide loop around the town square before continuing up the road to his cabin.
Tara saw the Father later that morning from a distance, as he parked his bicycle in the usual spot against the fence, and then walked across the orchard on the way to his cabin. She waved but he hadn’t seen her; he seemed engrossed in his own thoughts, and purposeful, as he walked briskly past the rows of ancient fruit trees. It was just before noon when Adam saw Father Davidson enter his cabin and shut the door behind him.
Later that afternoon Amelia made a delivery, in order to fulfill the business her brother had requested earlier that morning. She loaded her car with a new easel, an assortment of various sized canvasses, full sets of acrylic and oil paints along with brushes, palette knives, pens, colored pencils and a number of drawing pads, and miscellaneous other items. She had been surprised when her brother came to the store and paid for all of these things, and was even more surprised when he told her who they were for; and then she grew anxious when he asked her to deliver them for him.
Amelia had mixed feelings about Deirdre, but had never needed to sort her feelings out because she never saw Deirdre; it had been many years, possibly decades, since they last met. She felt sorry for the old woman now, and all the pain she apparently bore. As she drove to Deirdre’s home, Amelia remembered back to the first time they met—though it wasn’t a proper meeting—when she and Josh had saved Deirdre’s life, as she lay face-down and unconscious in the water. She had such an outpouring of empathy for that woman back then, and she remembered the pact she had made with Josh that evening, after rescuing Deirdre: a promise to rescue her from her pain and save her from her despair, to do everything they could to help people and never to harm them. She smiled as she thought back to these childhood memories, and to the simplicity they represented. How much she still had to learn about life back then; even so, she wasn’t wrong to think that way then, and it still wasn’t wrong to continue to think that way now.
She was glad that Josh had asked her to deliver the art supplies to Deirdre. It was time to meet and try again. Amelia grimaced as she remembered the terrible difficulty that Deirdre put her brother through, during the trial and sentencing for the fire and Ryan’s death. Deirdre had really hurt Amelia, because of the way she had treated Josh. But that was long ago now, and Amelia could easily understand the horrible pain that Deirdre was going through surrounding the death of her only child; it was understandable that Deirdre needed someone to blame. She smiled as she thought about her brother; how clever of him to arrange this meeting, to create an opportunity to finally reconcile with Deirdre.
Amelia knocked on the front door and waited anxiously. When the door opened, both women stood still, with surprised and quizzical expressions. Deirdre had aged a great deal since Amelia had last seen her, and she wasn’t sure it was her; and Amelia was perhaps the last person Deirdre expected to see standing there when she opened the door. Amelia spoke first.
“I’m sorry to bother you, my brother asked me to drop these things off.”
“What are they?” Deirdre asked, as her surprise turned to confusion.
“Art supplies. He thought you would enjoy them…paints, colored pencils…canvasses, paper—an easel, a lot of other things,” Amelia answered pleasantly.
“Oh…no, I can’t accept all of this,” Deirdre shook her head. “No, that’s fine, tell him thank you but…besides I don’t know how to paint, I can’t use them.”
“You’re in luck!” Amelia exclaimed happily. “He included ten private art lessons as well…with me. Anytime you like!”
Deirdre’s eyes grew large, and she looked at Amelia with a mix of surprise, perplexity and happiness. She smiled secretly, as she let out a deep sigh, and commented, “That is very generous. I don’t know what I did to deserve it…I suppose it would be rude to decline such an offer….but you don’t have time for that…to teach me, do you!?”
“It’s my job!” Amelia laughed. “I mean, even if it wasn’t, I would be happy to teach you. But it is, and it’s all paid for. Josh really wanted you to have this.”
“Well…I don’t know what to say,” Deirdre struggled, but then shrugged gratefully, “Thank you! I guess I can’t refuse then…Please, come in…here, let me help you.” She grabbed a few things from Amelia’s arms and showed her into the house. They spread out the bags of art supplies on the kitchen table, and then Deirdre offered Amelia some coffee. “Please stay for a little longer, I would really like to talk with you. I need to say some things,” she appealed while motioning for Amelia to take a seat.
Deirdre poured the coffee and sat across the table from Amelia and sat for a few moments, seeming to gather her thoughts, before beginning: “I want…I really need to apologize to you for how I acted towards your brother, and to you during the trial. It was wrong, I was wrong…I’m very sorry. Please tell your brother I’m sorry. I wanted to tell him when he was here but I didn’t have the chance, and then he left before I could.”
“When was Josh here?!” Amelia interjected as she sat up in her chair. “Why was he here? Recently?!”
“Yes…he just left this morning. He was here for several days…he hurt himself, he fell off the wall in back, and he hit his head. I think he had a concussion. I tried to convince him to go to the hospital but he refused. He insisted that I take care of him. So I…well, he’s very stubborn isn’t he? So I did what he asked.”
“Was he okay?” Amelia asked urgently and then fell silent as she thought about their meeting together earlier that morning. “He did seem fine when he came to the store this morning.”
“He was banged and bruised a bit, and had a big knot on his head for a few days. But I think he’ll be okay,” Deirdre said reassuringly.
“He’s such a klutz!” Amelia exclaimed. “He’s always falling down, ever since he was a kid. Oh, my goodness I hope he’s okay.” She looked through the back sliding door at the stone wall at the far end of the yard. “He fell off of that!? That is really high!”
“He fell into the shrubs first, and they broke his fall…don’t worry dear, I’m sure he is going to be fine. He’s a young man still and in good shape.”
The two women sat in silence for a while, sipping their coffee. Amelia grew more worried as she sat; Deirdre wished she hadn’t said anything about it.
“I should go,” Amelia said suddenly as she stood up to leave. “I’m sorry. Thank you for the coffee. And I’m really looking forward to painting with you…I really am Deirdre. I am so happy we’re going to do that together…I need to apologize to you too. I’m sorry about everything that happened…I’m so sorry about Ryan, he was such a wonderful person…I…can we talk more later though, Deirdre?! I’m just worried about Josh…I have a bad feeling about this for some reason…I need to go check on him.”
“Of course! You go, dear. Don’t worry about me…we’ll paint together soon. I will call you to set it up…and thank you! Thank you again. It means so much to me…you really have no idea how much.”
Amelia let herself out and ran to her car; and then drove faster than is legal, back to the orchard to check on her brother.
* * *
Deirdre went quiet on the other side of the wall; and I listened closely a little longer, trying to hear what she was doing, before continuing on my walk. Flower petals fluttered past me through the air, and I smiled contentedly as I viewed the path ahead—looking like a street after a parade—multi-colored and festive. I could no longer hear Deirdre so I continued on my way, almost reaching the large chestnut tree at the southern corner of the wall, when I heard the familiar creak, and clackety-clacking, of Father Davidson’s bicycle behind me. I turned around and watched as he parked his bike, leaning it against another chestnut tree near the northern corner of the wall, some 75 feet or so away from me; and then he clambered like a squirrel up the tree and across a low-hanging branch, and then onto the wall. For a man nearly fifty, or thereabouts, he was quite agile and limber; and I admired his dexterity.
He stood still and very erect for a brief moment, staring down at Deirdre, before saluting to her, and then jumping into action; dancing along the wall in the same way he had when I first met him—one step, two, and a little hop, and a twirl, and then repeating. This time however, flower petals flew in all directions as he went; and he reminded me of a child with a pile of fallen leaves. He smiled broadly, and glanced often in Deirdre’s direction, to make sure that she was still watching him.
“Come on, get down now.” I heard her plead, but more gently this time than before. And then: “You don’t need to hurt yourself. You win, I’m too tired to fight you anymore.”
Father Davidson didn’t stop however, but continued to hop, and twirl, and kick up flowers in all directions. Yet, when he had reached about midway along the wall, he laughed loudly—or did he shriek?—and he tripped, or was it intentional? And he fell off the wall and out of my sight, landing on the other side with a rustle and then a thump.
I’m still unsure what exactly happened on Deirdre’s wall at that moment—when I go over it in my mind. It seemed that he may have slipped, as perhaps the petals were wet and slick from the morning dew. But he may have tripped, as his right foot appeared to hit a protruding stone and he lost his footing. But on the other hand, he may have simply jumped.
By the time I ran around to the side gate and into the backyard, Deirdre had managed to lift Father Davidson’s torso up onto her lap as she knelt on the ground behind him. His hands and feet were bloody, and he appeared to be unconscious as she held him in her arms. Nearby shrubs must have softened his fall before hitting the ground; although I noticed a large bump growing upon his forehead, indicating that he must have struck it fairly hard.
Deirdre looked panicked and distressed as she rubbed his face briskly with a scarf, which she pulled from around her neck. He was breathing but unresponsive; and the next few minutes seemed to stretch into eternity as we tried to wake him up. Eventually cold water splashed onto his face, and over his head, helped revive Father Davidson. However, he was groggy and mostly incoherent as his eyes struggled to focus; and he turned his head this way and that, attempting to understand where he was and what had happened to him. But when Deirdre asked me to call for an ambulance, the Father suddenly became more alert and aware of his circumstances and adamantly refused—instead, insisting to be brought inside, and for Deirdre to care for him.
And though she was clearly reluctant to do so, she acquiesced, and between the two of us we managed to hoist the Father to his feet, propping him up as he stumbled across the backyard and into Deirdre’s house. Once inside, she directed us down a short hallway, and then into her spare room—Ryan’s former bedroom. We helped Father Davidson onto the bed, propping his head under several pillows; and I sat beside him while Deirdre went to get a washcloth to clean the blood from his hands and feet. He remained delirious as she cleaned him, saying ridiculous and nonsensical things that made her smile, and even laugh; and when she finished, he was asleep.
She had washed him with great care and gentleness, which made it hard for me to believe the things I knew about her anger; for anger or harsh feelings seemed too incongruous for the sweet woman I saw here before me, hovering attentively over the ailing Father. But how complicated, multi-faceted, and changeable is a human being; at peace one moment and then provoked to madness the next, and then settled once again. Though Father Davidson had clearly awakened her to her better nature, and Deirdre looked joyful for once, and her face seemed radiant with a new happiness and purpose. I hesitated to leave the old woman to care for him alone, but she assured me she was fine and could manage.
Father Davidson stayed with Deirdre for several days, until his wounds began to scab over and the bump on his forehead went down. She cared for him like a mother would, much to her own surprise; and her heart warmed to him, as she allowed her own wounds to heal and she began to forgive. She hadn’t intended to forgive him, but the decision snuck up on her unexpectedly. If she had been honest with herself, she always knew in her heart that he had never intentionally hurt her boy Ryan; she had always known this, though it was inconvenient and unsatisfying to admit it.
In fact, she often doubted that Father Davidson, or Josh as she always thought of him, had actually anything to do with her son’s death at all; she had secretly come to accept that it was just an unfortunate accident, and one that was most likely caused by Richard, and not by Josh. Now, as she watched the Father sleeping soundly, she wondered why she had harbored such anger and bitterness towards him all of these years. He certainly hadn’t deserved it, so why had it taken her so long to accept this? She wanted to wake him now to apologize for everything, but she let him sleep. Certainly, there would be time to finally apologize later.
* * *
Father Davidson came down from Deirdre’s wall, politely honoring her request; but he was back, dancing atop her wall the following day. He must have had some purpose, or seen some opportunity for helping Deirdre from up there; because he wasn’t one to antagonize another person maliciously, or for no reason. At least that’s my opinion.
Months passed in which Father Davidson often visited Deirdre in this way, even though there never appeared any opening for a reconciliation, nor any healing of the old wounds she carried towards him. Typically, his antics were met by her with chastisement, abuse or belittlement; so that it seemed to most casual observers that he must either be a glutton for punishment, or have a screw loose.
Father Davidson concluded his story about the desert in the late fall, and during the long, cold winter which followed, I never saw him. I returned to the campfire several times but he never appeared, as he said he wouldn’t; and his presence was nowhere to be seen around town. I expect that he spent most of the winter in his cabin praying, since he had explained to us at our last meeting together around the fire, that this is what he intended to do. Whether or not he visited Deirdre during the winter, or danced upon her wall during this time, I am unaware.
But when spring finally arrived it was a glorious rebirth of budding foliage and flowers, and the reemergence of the Father. He announced his return in a most subtle, and extravagant, and beautiful way; though only to one person, Deirdre, and to anyone else who might have caught sight of the sign and understood it. I happened to be up early this particular morning, and taking a long walk around town when I passed by the tall stone wall which sheltered Deirdre’s home behind it, and had lately often hosted Father Davidson’s tragicomedies. It is a sturdy old wall, made of brown basalt and held together by mortar; standing nearly seven feet tall, and perhaps roughly eighteen inches wide—it is normally imposing and solemn. But not on this morning; today it was welcoming and playful, festooned with a cacophony of flower petals piled across its entire ridge, and cascading across its face during every small breeze—leaving mounds of petals piled here and there against its base, and fluttering gymnastically across the street where I walked.
At that time I didn’t know Deirdre, but I heard her moaning from the other side of the wall and I wondered what it could mean. I also didn’t know or understand the meaning behind the flower petals, nor their connection within her heart to the memory of her dear little boy—long since gone. But I later learned that in this way, Father Davidson memorialized Ryan’s childhood gift of flowers to his mother—in this same way—every year on the anniversary of Ryan’s death. Was this kind, was it cruel? It evoked strong emotion from Deirdre, and she cried every time. This is how she later described it: at first the abundant flowers startled her, and then they unlocked a wellspring of sorrows which were held in check and unmoving but finally released each year, and then she felt peace, a deep calm that was always elusive, until after her outpouring of tears. She missed her boy, but she liked this tribute; it made her smile—finally, after all the tears had gone. Little by little it also caused her to reconsider her unmoving and stoic hatred of Father Davidson.
Eventually—she would later confess—she came to look forward to Father Davidson’s visits. For one, they broke up the monotony that her life had become; since she left the house infrequently, and almost never entertained guests. Secondly, the freedom she experienced while watching him, gave her hope. What kind of hope? It is difficult to say; she didn’t know. But the release that his antics created inside her, as she watched him play on top of her wall, this release allowed her to experience life again, and the darkness that had plagued her for so many years parted a little bit, allowing a little light into her soul. The hope she felt related to this feeling of lightness; hope, light, and freedom performed an alchemy that transformed Deirdre.
She had never been a religious, nor even a spiritual person, not that she could remember. Although, she still had some faint memories as a young child being a creative and imaginative person; and she remembered that these things opened doors in her mind, or was it her heart—or both—that seemed to touch upon the realm of other worlds. She still remembered those times, as a little girl, when she felt she could feel and hear angels; and thoughts of God were not antithetical to her nature.
But these things seemed a lifetime ago, and she doubted she could ever be that person again. For one thing, she was far too old now to entertain childish thoughts, wasn’t she? And even if she could allow herself the freedom to imagine once again, and to re-explore the things of her childhood, would it even be possible? How could she learn to do it? Even considering it made her feel afraid and inadequate. And she could hear her father’s voice, the memory of him telling her to grow up and to put aside such foolish thoughts; that she was a ridiculous and silly girl. His voice in particular seized her, and paralyzed her impulse to try again.
But now there was Father Davidson, who seemed to be calling her to confront these fears; and his presence gave her new courage. Perhaps it was possible to begin again; maybe she could discover herself after all the years of pain had obscured her vision. To survive, it had always seemed the better option to let herself disappear under layers of falsehoods, deceptions, and diversions. But honestly, she was tired of hiding, running and fighting; and she was curious to see what more Father Davidson might show her.
* * *
Deirdre recovered, and after a brief stay under suicide watch in a nearby hospital, she returned home to her beloved son. He was so precious to her now, more than ever; as life itself held more meaning—and more hope—than it had before her close brush with death. And she was profoundly grateful to the two teens who had saved her life, allowing her to return to her little boy (though not so little any longer). Who were they? They were a brother and sister she had been told; the girl had masterfully sailed them back to shore, while the boy had plucked her from the waves and somehow performed mouth to mouth resuscitation while she was still partially in the water, until she was back on land and could be treated by paramedics. Amazing!
Deirdre wanted to meet them, since she owed them both her life, but time passed, and the more time elapsed, the more embarrassed she became, having never thanked them. Eventually, the shame she felt about this, transformed in some strange way within her, so that she became angry with them instead. She blamed them for saving her life, believing that she would have been better off if she had died. At times she believed this with all her being, but then at other times she was still glad to be alive—for Ryan’s sake.
But it would have been so easy to just slip below the waves and disappear, she would think; in fact she had already become unconscious, so she wouldn’t have known anything, the hard part she had already overcome. Death had been within her grasp, and she was already half-way there, until the young man, Josh, had pulled her back. Was that fate? Or dumb luck? She believed in both. Life was so ugly, and death seemed so right—the perfect answer to the ugliness of her life, so why was she saved?
She even considered that Josh had saved her intentionally in order to torment her. These are the twisted maneuvers that her mind could make. And if there was a God, he surely had it out for her, somehow wanting to cause her as much pain as possible in this life, and using Josh to do it. She began to see Josh, not so much as a savior anymore, but as a tormentor and a messenger of evil. But then she’d stop herself, because these were crazy thoughts, and he’s just a kid after all, and he saved her life! Of course he didn’t want to hurt her, he didn’t even know her! So she’d stop with this painful, demented train of thought and come to her senses again, feeling gratitude for the second chance at life that resulted from Josh’s, and his sister’s, act of bravery and selflessness towards her.
But Deirdre was a restless sort of person, so she could never finally settle on one way of thinking, or the other. Until the café fire and the loss of her boy, proved once and for all that Josh was indeed a bad person who had come into her life to hurt her, and to make her life “a living hell,” as she often would say. She wanted nothing more to do with Josh Davidson, even hoping that he might die; but if that wasn’t possible, at the very least he should go to prison for a very long time. She hoped she’d never have to see him again. But as fate, or dumb-luck works, we often don’t get what we hope for in this life. Some would say that God has a better plan for us; but Deirdre didn’t know anything about God, and this didn’t cross her mind.
Josh did go away to prison for a while and this pleased Deirdre; though she felt it wasn’t nearly long enough. She was alone now and missed her boy tremendously. She often thought about his final moments in the fire, but she couldn’t bring herself to dwell on the horror of that for long; so she’d distract herself by reading through the journal that Ryan had left behind: filled with his thoughts, fears, and hopes for the future. She was surprised to see how much Ryan had begun to think about God; and also how much influence Josh Davidson had on her son. These two things bothered her and they made her feel very uncomfortable; to distract herself from this, she’d cleaned the house a little, but surprisingly she wouldn’t pour herself a drink. She had grown too weary for that, and she was tired of feeling hungover all the time. Most days she still needed a drink, but not so much as a distraction anymore, just for maintenance.
She’d gaze out the back window into the spacious backyard, imagining her little boy out there playing with Buddy the dog. She could spend hours daydreaming, going over all of his exploits in her mind, almost imagining that he was really out there, dancing along the top of the old stone wall, or picking flowers and bringing them into the house to give her.
Until one day, years later, suddenly and as if out of a dream—or out of a nightmare—that young man showed up again (now quite a bit older). It was Josh Davidson walking along the top of the wall, dancing and hopping, and twirling like a marionette, imitating her dear son Ryan! Deirdre stood at her back window watching him, in shock and disbelief and unable to move. A cascade of thoughts flooded her mind, and she was unable to keep up or focus on any one of them: “…how did he get there? where did he come from?…how did he know her little Ryan used to do that same dance on the wall?…and why is he imitating him?…and why is she enjoying watching him?…how could she enjoy it and why can’t she turn away, or close her eyes?…what are these tears falling now?…and why am I crying…and how does he know?!”
Deirdre wiped the tears from her face, and this broke the trance; she immediately jumped into action, running around to the back door, and out across the yard to where Josh was balancing on the wall, and she yelled up to him with all her strength: “What in hell are you doing up there?! Get off my wall!!!
* * *
Thoughts about God led Ryan in new directions; he lost interest in his old books about adventure and intrigue, and sought out more philosophical and theologically themed works. He and Josh both worked together early in the morning, before Ryan went to school, and he looked forward to these times to talk about what he had read, to get Josh’s opinion about these matters. And while Josh had done some reading himself, his feeling was that it was more important to seek God directly in life and living, rather than through a book. Ryan jotted down some notes about one of their conversations in a journal found at his home, from which I’ve tried to reconstruct the basics of, and share with you here:
“I’ve always felt as though you know God personally,” Ryan commented to Josh early one morning. “How do you know him?”
“If I know him at all…I’m not always sure that I do…I think it is by using my body, or everything that I am, to search for him,” Josh replied. “I watch for him, I listen, I think always about God, if I can…and I stop my thoughts as much as possible, so that I can experience him through my living.”
“But I don’t experience him, it doesn’t seem to me that he is near. I like to read about him though, a lot of what’s written makes sense to me, though a lot of it also doesn’t make sense,” Ryan countered.
“God is much closer than we realize, I think,” Josh continued. “I think we just don’t know how to understand his presence. That’s what we need to learn…is how to train our senses to experience him. It’s like we can see, but our eyes don’t understand what they’re seeing.”
“How do you do that!?” Ryan exclaimed.
“I don’t think books can teach us that; maybe they can point the way, or inspire us a little. I’m not sure how we learn it actually,” Josh shrugged innocently. “Or…we learn by doing, and by asking. I ask God to teach me how to find him. I pray, I guess you’d call it. I talk to God—whether I think he’s there or not—and to my surprise…eventually he appears to me, somehow.”
Conversations such as this one gave Ryan hope. Josh had made the prospect of knowing God seem possible, and this hope became a new powerful and important ally in his battle against his sadness and despair. He also hoped that his mom would discover this herself someday, and find a way out of her own darkness. In fact, one morning he even asked Josh directly for his help with this. He was almost pleading that Josh would teach his mom how to know God, so that she could be happy; and Josh promised Ryan that he would try.
However, several months later the café burned down, and Ryan died in the fire, and Josh confessed to starting the fire. This horrible and tragic event greatly complicated his relationship with Ryan’s mother, and prevented her from allowing Josh to fulfill his promise to his friend.
Deirdre already knew Josh, from an event that had occurred a few years earlier, and this event left her with very strong, and very mixed feelings about the young man. So that now, as he was apparently the cause of her own son’s death, she understandably didn’t want to have anything to do with him; the anger that so often had derailed her in the past, now seethed within her towards him, and yet she was confused and unsure about this anger. She felt ashamed of her anger, in this particular case…at one moment chastising herself because she owed her own life to the boy…and the next moment wishing she and Ryan had never met him, wishing that Josh had died, instead of her son.
Deirdre hadn’t wished someone else were dead, since Ryan’s father had left them; he was the last person—other than herself—that she seriously had these thoughts and feelings towards. But as she devoted herself to raising Ryan, eventually her anger towards her ex-husband faded, replaced by new causes and objects of her rage. But the one person who always made her feel better was her son; though she regrettably and incomprehensibly often directed her anger towards him. How could she do it?! She often asked herself this question, while locked behind her bedroom door—as much to protect her little boy from herself, as to protect herself from the world.
Rage turned to sadness turned to despair; but drinking set her free. A gin and tonic, or a vodka and coke always helped her breathe again, when life seemed to want to suck the oxygen right out of her lungs. And with a smile, she’d pour a second drink, and gaze out the bedroom window, and secretly watch her beautiful baby boy as he was playing with the dog. Her heart always softened—and she entirely forgot the issues she had against life—as she watched him play: picking flowers, climbing trees, and dancing like a silly marionette across the top of the stone wall, at the far end of the yard. Whatever he did out there always made her smile, and chuckle to herself; and after a third or fourth drink, she was often in hysterics—a happiness due to her son, mixing with a desperation at her sinking life—until she collapsed and fell asleep on the floor.
Sometimes she felt very ashamed that she drank so much, with her innocent son in the house. So she started to leave the house to go drinking. And this made her feel better, at least until she had to return home again. By the time Ryan was in high school she had made a habit of leaving the house to visit several local bars; and sometimes she checked in on him before leaving, to make sure he was okay and had food available, in case she didn’t make it back for a few days. Little acts of kindness like that, convinced her that she was doing a pretty good job as a mother, so that she could leave and go to the bar with a clear conscience.
One winter, in the early morning, Deirdre left the bar and attempted to find her way back home. She had a bottle hidden in a bush outside the bar, available in case she hadn’t had enough inside before the bar closed, in case she was still thirsty. She grabbed this vodka on her way out, and took it with her for the long walk home. But she never made it home.
Somewhere along the way, she got confused; she saw the lights across the bay and they looked like streetlights, so she followed them. After that she must have fallen into the water, and sometime after that she must have lost consciousness. Fortunately for her, not too long after that, she was pulled from the water and taken to safety by the Davidson kids, who heroically managed to get her up out of the water, and tie her off to the tiller of their little sailboat, and sail her back to the dock at the nearby marina. Along the way, Josh Davidson kept her alive—filling her shrunken lungs with his own breath—while Amelia piloted them back to safety.
* * *
Before continuing with the final chapters of the story of Father Davidson’s beautiful life and perfect death, I think it would be helpful first to backtrack just a bit; and to share briefly with you, a little about Ryan—the boy who was accidentally killed in the café fire—and his mother. Because their stories intersect with Father Davidson’s in several important ways.
Ryan had no siblings and lived alone with his mother, Deirdre, in a small house on a spacious property south of town. Ryan’s father left them when he was a toddler, leaving the young mother to raise him on her own. She did admirably, at first, motivated by her anger towards Ryan’s dad, and by an intense desire to prove everyone wrong who doubted her ability to take care of herself in these circumstances, let alone raise a boy on her own.
Deirdre’s motherly love for her son, and her devoted attention to his needs, surprised everyone who knew her, who knew her inclination to become overwhelmed within the world of her own turbulent emotions. She fought back the sadness and the anger admirably in her effort to be a good mother to her only child. But these emotions seemed to have a life of their own within her, and they reappeared when she least expected and at the worst times.
She wasn’t herself when the sadness or the anger returned, and she treated her beloved child poorly when this happened; sometimes yelling in a rage, so that he fled the house in tears, or other times retiring to her bedroom and locking the door, ignoring the little boy for hours, or sometimes days at a time.
Over the years Ryan learned to adapt to his mother’s mercurial temperament, and in some ways he even learned how to thrive within her orbit. He loved her immensely, and always found a way to forgive her for her unexpected outbursts; and he knew how to focus his mind on the love that she had showed him over the years, coaxing his memory to linger on only the good times they shared, and concentrating his hopes for the future on these memories of the past.
His young life was plagued with loneliness, and as he grew older, he also discovered a depth of sadness within himself, similar to the one that his mother possessed. Had she taught him this sadness, or passed it along to him unwittingly? Who knows exactly the method that it was transferred to him, but the result was that Ryan learned at an early age to wage his own battle against a profound and chronic sorrow. Fortunately, he had several allies in this fight: his imagination, his love of books, and his best friend, Buddy—a small dog his mother had given him during one of her happier episodes.
As a youngster, Ryan relied especially on Buddy to meet his emotional needs; and the little dog willingly played multiple roles as mother, father, and brother to him. He licked Ryan’s wounds when he fell, protected him against enemies real and imagined, and he wrestled with the little boy, sometimes even competing like a sibling would for the best place on the couch, or battling with him over a tasty treat.
Their refuge was the backyard, in good times and in bad; they could easily spend all day playing in the expansive yard. And when his mother locked herself in her bedroom, they often also spent all night out there. This sounds a little sad, but Ryan and Buddy didn’t see it that way. There was too much to be done to be sad: too many imaginary places to discover, and monsters to defeat, people and dogs to rescue, and prizes and honors to be won!
In winter storms, they braved torrential rains and stormy seas—sometimes defiantly like Captain Ahab, in search for that great white whale, Buddy, hidden beneath waves of tall grass—or other times shipwrecked like Robinson Crusoe, with his trusty dog, Buddy, marooned and trying to survive. And in summer heat, they found shelter from the hot sun under the tall trees, in a hidden grotto at the far corner of the yard; and there they waited for the sun to set, the moon to rise, and for someone like Peter Pan, or their mom, to rescue them.
And Ryan rarely let his mother see him cry; he didn’t want to add to her problems. So he tried to keep it inside, although he sometimes let himself cry when he was safely hidden away. At night was a good time to let it out, under the cover of darkness, and when Buddy was curled up next to his head, so that he could bury his face in the warm, soft fur and silence his sobs. But mostly he would lay there, next to Buddy, not crying, but just thinking about things, wondering what he’d be when he grew up, and praying that Buddy would be there with him when he did.
He often thought about his mom, wondering what he could do to make her feel better. He drew pictures for her, and even performed little plays for her, and she seemed to enjoy these things. She laughed the hardest though when he acted silly, pretending to be a little wooden soldier—or like Pinocchio—walking stiff-legged, and twirling about, and always about to fall down.
And she loved flowers, so he brought her flowers, ones he picked from the garden, or wildflowers that he found growing along the base of the tall stone wall which enclosed the backyard. He’d scatter them throughout the house, across the tables and chairs and over the counter, because she liked them that way; the wildness of the flowers—and the disarray of their varied colors—strewn throughout the home made her happy. When she saw the flowers in this way, she felt free.
As Ryan grew older he turned his attention to books more, and spent less time in the yard playing games; though because the house was so small, and the pain his mother experienced was so great, he preferred to spend most of his time reading, out in the fort he made amongst the trees. He performed less and less for her, and rarely drew her a picture after he entered high school, but his gift of flowers scattered throughout the house had become a family tradition that neither son nor mother could bear to abandon. Though, for Ryan at least, he took less pleasure in giving them, because he saw the happiness they brought his mother was very short-lived. Flowers didn’t solve her problems.
There were periods when Deirdre left the house for a night or two, leaving Ryan to take care of himself. He didn’t ask questions when she’d return, though she was clearly hungover and smelled of alcohol. One time she was gone for several days, and he learned later that she had been taken to the hospital—that she had nearly died—but he wasn’t given much more information about it other than that. A neighbor came to stay with him until his mother returned home. For several weeks after that incident, she was like a new person. She hugged him, and told him how much she loved him, which she hadn’t done in quite some time. She also noticed and appreciated little details about life which had previously always escaped her, and she commented upon these things in an exaggerated and dramatic way, and exclaimed how grateful she was for everything! For Ryan, her new attitude was refreshing and surprising, and a little entertaining. They both enjoyed each other a lot during this period, though it too was short-lived; and soon things returned to normal again.
In his senior year, Ryan got a job working in the kitchen at Café Diamandis, owned by Apollo and Lilian Diamandis, parents of Mark, one of his classmates. Mark also worked there and helped get him the job, which Ryan appreciated the most because it gave him a good excuse to get out of the house, and away from the confusing and complicated emotions he felt towards his mom. At work he also became good friends with another classmate—Josh Davidson.
Nature is always looking for ways to heal; similarly, Ryan’s nature unconsciously sought out ways to heal the pain and suffering that he experienced. In Josh, Ryan saw an example of the wholeness and health that he wanted for himself; so he was drawn irresistibly to that. He looked for any excuse to be near Josh, to watch him and learn from him. I don’t believe that Ryan did this consciously, nor do I think he was aware of the reasons, but somewhere deep inside him, I think he believed that Josh could show him the way to a new and better life. In this way, Ryan awakened and opened to the idea of a God, and the possibility that there is a God who might be able to help him. How he made the leap from Josh to God, I can’t say exactly; perhaps it was an intuitive understanding of a connection between health and wholeness, and God. So that when he saw Josh, he also perceived the source of Josh’s health and wholeness—that Josh wasn’t responsible for his own mental and emotional health, but rather enjoyed these as a gift. But if they were a gift, and he came to believe that they were, from where did they come, or from who?
* * *