Episode 16--“The Lottery”

Grief is a thin place. A place so thin, it’s hard to tell where earth ends and heaven begins.

Grief is a place so thin that it’s where the living and the dead feel one another’s love.

I’m the Rev. Lisa Hamilton, and I grieve. First, I’ll read a scripture appointed for today. Then I’ll struggle with those words through the lens of grief. I’m glad you’ve joined me. Today’s scripture is Jeremiah chapter 17, verses five through ten:

Thus says the Lord:

Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the Lord.

They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see when relief comes.

They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.

They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.

It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;

in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.

The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse--
who can understand it?

I the Lord test the mind
and search the heart,

to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.

As the psalmist says, “Who can understand it?” Who can understand why a friend’s baby was born with stage four liver cancer? Who can understand why my son outlived addiction only to die from the effects of Imodium, used by many in recovery to cope with nerve pain that outlasts their using? Who can understand why, in a prenatal exercise class, one expectant mom was the wife of an oncologist and another pregnant member was the wife of a man who became his patient?

I was the wife of the man who was the patient. I remember another doctor from when my first husband, Scott, was in the hospital for yet another chemotherapy, yet another futile attempt to save his life. He was a doctors who wasn’t afraid to show he cared, a doctor we respected because he had the courage, the audacity, to say that he didn’t know why Scott had contracted the cancer, and who wished with us for more medical options with more certainty. As the three of us spoke about the improbability of the “Who can understand it” situation in which were living, the doctor muttered as much to himself as to us. “Remember that old song?” he asked. “If it weren’t for bad luck, you’d have no luck at all. When we talk about how and why you got this cancer, that song keeps running through my head.

It may seem like a harsh comment, but I remember it as compassion. The doctor, the one to whom we went for answers and treatments, the holder of our hope, entered into our gloom, our despair, our agony. Like the psalmist, he asked, “Who can understand?”

There’s a short story by Shirley Jackson called “The Lottery.” Maybe you know it. It’s about a small village that holds a ceremony each year. This ritual lottery ends in the stoning of one unlucky adult. They gather at 10 a.m. on the prescribed day and the survivors stone to death one of their own in time for lunch. No reason for this annual cruelty is given, although some nearby fictional towns have discontinued the practice.

My son, Ted, and I were English majors at the same college, 30 years apart. The better part of the last half of his life – he died at 27 – was marred by struggles with addiction, which breeds troubles like a hydra. But by the end, signs of hope were shining in his life as fast as stars on a clear night in the country.

One of those signs was that we were enjoying reading the same things at the same time, although we were separated by several states. We loved the suspense of Jackson’s story, and maybe because we’d lost the lottery with Scott’s cancer, neither of us were particularly shocked by the “Who can understand?” of the story.

Now I have two copies of Jackson’s short stories. In each book, the page where “The Lottery” begins is dog-eared. It’s the only short story in the collection we got to. I am left holding the artifacts of our relationship, asking, “Who can understand?” and I no longer know what my son wonders.

Grief is a thin place.