I was alone on campus when the phone call came. My dad had been trying to reach me, but there was only one phone for the two corridors on my side of the floor in the freshman dorm, and I had not been in when someone answered the phone and yelled down the corridor for “Bonde.” So the message came: at such and so o’clock Dad would call. Be there. And I was there. Though every corridor in the building – a men’s dorm in those days – had been paired with a corridor from the freshman women’s dorm, and they were all out on a school-sponsored picnic in a natural area across the rural two-lane state highway from campus.
So I waited behind as my corridor left to pick up their assigned corridor from the girls dorm. I was alone in the building when the call came that Ken had had an aneurism. Dad explained it as best he could, but I knew Ken was gone. There had been multiple bleeds. They were going to turn off the machines.
The campus was strangely still. Upper classmen had not yet arrived – and every freshman corridor was at a picnic. So I walked across the vacant campus feeling nothing but emptiness. I wandered through the nature preserve going from each small clutch of students to another, trying to find my group. I was carrying my guitar, because I had been asked to bring it so we could sing songs at our picnic. It banged and rattled against my legs as I searched for my corridor amidst the trees and tall grass.
When I finally found my corridor the food had been eaten. Beyond that I remember little, except my attempt to join the singing was fruitless and I wandered off into the tall grass and sat down with my guitar, trying to take in what had happened. There was a moment in which I felt Ken’s presence. And then it was gone. Then it was just desolation. Emptiness. That age-old problem of trying to get your head around news impossible to comprehend.
It was my job to find my stepsister, Anne, and tell her what had happened. I remember sitting on the curb outside her dorm – boys couldn’t go to the room in those days. She didn’t want to believe it.
I don’t remember anything else. Somehow I made it home to California, and remember walking in to the house, filled as it was with guests/mourners. I remember the funeral home where the body was laid out. I remember sitting in the front row at church as a pallbearer. And as we walked out, I put my hand on the casket and recoiled because it was cold. Steel, I assume. Desolate.
And then, at the back of the church, distraught, waiting for me in the narthex, a dear and unexpected friend.
I wish I knew where Janet was now.
Other fragments of memory. In Des Moines at the home of Jane’s parents, who had so recently become Ken’s in-laws. Riding in the limousine and looking out the window at telephone lines and poles flitting past. I had no idea where we were or where we were going, but many years later I was able to follow that same path back to the cemetery without a map or directions. I knew every turn in the road.
In my mind it wasn’t a beautiful sunny day; it was grey and cold. There was a crowd of people from St. Olaf College who had come down for the committal. I think the campus pastor did the prayers. Memory fools me. In my mind it is just a casket sitting on the green grass in an empty cemetery. Yet I remember the crowd, the handshakes, the sympathies.
I don’t know how I got back to school. I remember that my corridor had sent flowers – which was kind of amazing since I hardly knew them.
We didn’t do well as a family in our grieving, though I recognize now we were pretty normal. I remember being home from college and mother being distant in her grief. I came into the living room once, saw her in the corner of the couch weeping, and found myself angry: I was helpless to ease her pain, and troubled that there was so little attention left for us who survived. It took us too long to tell our stories, too long to talk about what Ken meant to us. We shared that common fear that telling the story would add to the hurt rather than work its work of healing. We let the pain drive us deeper into ourselves and away from one another rather than carrying us into each other’s arms.
Mom and Jane gave me Ken’s college ring and his cloth winter coat. I wore that coat until it was rags – the rags seemed to reflect my own inner spirit better than anything.
It was my sophomore year when the desolation hit fully. And a long slow road out of the depths. It was the reason I went to seminary. I wanted to make sense of Ken’s death. I had to find a way to think about God that could handle that complexity. I spent a year studying the book of Lamentations for a thesis. And then, my senior year, I preached a sermon in chapel from Lamentations that poured out all the passion of the previous seven years. Somewhere I have a recording of that sermon. Either it was recorded at a slightly slower speed, so that the playback is pitched too high or, in my nervous anxiety that day, my voice took on an unnaturally high tone. But the message was there – of a God who entered our sorrows, who bore the cross, who wept our tears.
Whatever sense we make out of the incarnation and the cross, it does mean this: that God is not dwelling above in perfection; God is walking the dusty roads with us, bearing the burdens we bear, tasting the sting of the lash and the sorrow of death, yet daring to trust that the author of life will bring life, will restore this broken world to its true and proper wholeness.