One year ago today my little brother Matthew died. Strangely enough, it took most of last year to move towards grieving, leaving a state of disbelief. I’ve become somewhat used to the unexpectated nature of grief. It’s not easier, mind you, but I’m not surprised anymore when the most random song or sound feels like a kick to the stomach. I’m not surprised by my awkward emotions in public, when the pain is too much and I can’t describe why I’m crying. I’m not crazy — and I know the outbursts are completely normal — but the normality of the pain doesn’t make it less searing.
Singing at church brings me joy. I escape from the everyday into a heavenly place, a timeless realm where I’m reminded of who I am and who God is. Singing breathes life into my darkened soul. I sing hymns bringing comfort and hymns of suffering, and both bring me to tears. My throat closes up and no sound can leave my mouth. Now the hymn stirring the most joy and sorrow in my heart is sung every Saturday night vigil, the Prayer of Saint Simeon.
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word,
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which though hast prepared before the face of all people,
A light to lighten the Gentiles,
And the glory of thy people Israel.
For a whole year I couldn’t figure out why this hymn moved me so much — because it made me think of Matthew. Elderly Simeon waited every day in the temple courts for the Christ child to come into the world, because God promised him that he would not die until he saw the Messiah face to face. Holding the baby in his arms, Simeon prays, Lord, now I can take my last breath, for I have seen your promise.
My husband also reminded me that Matthew died on a feast day. February 2nd each year on the Orthodox Church calendar is the Meeting of the Lord, where we honor Mary and Joseph following their religious tradition and bringing Jesus into the temple as a baby to be dedicated to God. This day is also Simeon’s moment.
My little brother lived in such a way that everyone knew his true heart well, because he openly loved people with no strings attached. Matt would pick up a broke friend from the university in town and he would buy the guy dinner at Waffle House with the last twenty bucks in his bank account. They would talk about life and love until the wee hours of the morning. Then Matt would drive his friend home. Once he accidentally ran out of gas before he reaching his own apartment, and he called dad asking for twenty bucks worth of gas. Dad often laughs while telling this story.
Sitting on the family mantle is a painting of Simeon holding the Christ-child. He’s laughing, his face filled with joy. Light emanates from the child, revealing a map of the world within the image. My mom bought it when Matt was little. His birth was nothing short of miraculous, and mom repeatedly tells the story. The doctor told her to give up on imagining a new baby in her arms because she wouldn’t make it. (It should be noted that the three previous births were also miraculous). In the midst of a stressful pregnant night, she dreamed. She saw herself falling into pitch black with no end in sight. Others were screaming and falling all around her, but then a giant hand appeared. She was caught and lifted out into the sunshine; the hand set her small self onto a rocky ledge. She heard a voice say: My precious child, it is not your time.
To this day mom loves the story of Saint Simeon - how he waited and trusted God to see the promised child. She believed God for her promised child too.
A dear friend brought me a gift from her vacation to Mexico — a prayer bracelet of red satin string with a silver key charm. I woke up yesterday morning with tears stinging my throat and my head burning. The body always knows when these anniversaries are near, even if the heart and the mind aren’t ready. I looked more intently at the key and was reminded of a scene: a cold stone floor of a giant’s dungeon. The dungeon belongs to the giant named Despair, and the captives, aptly named Christian and Hopeful, consider their fate (John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress). After weeks of torture, the two are completely spent. Christian sees no way out, but Hopeful reminds his friend of all the hard times they previously walked through unscathed. Then Christian wildly exclaims: what a fool I am! He remembers the key hanging around his neck, the key named Promise. And Promise can unlock any door in the giant’s castle.
You might ask: what good is a promise if the child still dies? Matthew lived to be 25 before the unknown melanoma came out of nowhere and took him. There is no reason for his death, because death has no reason. There is no silver-lined key around my neck, but I will close the door to last year. I am well acquainted with grief; it now has a place of honor in my life. For my brother has seen his salvation face to face, and I still hope to see mine. I believe he is bathed in light, while I still look through a glass darkly. Here we are, Matthew, one year later — and I’m still hopeful.