Death and Blossoms
by Karissa Knox Sorrell
A couple of months ago, I went to a funeral. It was for a woman named Joyce whose husband had been my pastor at one time. When I greeted him at the front of the church, I unexpectedly burst into tears, and he took me in his arms and cried with me.
Two days after that I went to the cemetery. It was the day my brother died, sixteen years earlier. We let off balloons at his grave and watched them float up and up until the sky swallowed them.
Three days later, fifty people were gunned down in a nightclub in Orlando.
* * *
In his famous poem “From Blossoms,” Li-Young Lee writes, “There are days we live/as if death were nowhere/in the background.”
Those days seems far from us now. Death is all around.
* * *
A canvas painting of a Mexican Day of the Dead skull hangs in my living room. I found it at Goodwill and purchased it on a whim. It is a bit startling, but it’s beautiful. Bright colors pattern the skull, pouring a bit of beauty over a sign of death. I know that death is not beautiful, though. I know how deep and dark is the cavern of grief.
But I’ve always loved Dia de los Muertos. The holiday somehow merges joy and grief, light and dark, fun and memoriam. So even though some visitors in our home don’t particularly like a skull smiling down at them, I don’t take it down. Perhaps it is my reminder that death cannot overcome love. Perhaps it makes me think of my brother, his fun spirit, his constant jokes, his infectious laugh. Or maybe, I leave it up for the promise of joy, even when I’ve encountered death.
* * *
On Orthodox Holy Thursday I went to church and watched my priest nail an icon of Jesus to the cross. I sobbed. I cried because they shouldn’t have done it. They shouldn’t have beaten him. They shouldn’t have stripped off his clothes. They shouldn’t have crowned him with a crown that cut into his flesh. They shouldn’t have driven the nails through his hands. They shouldn’t have stood at his feet and mocked him. How inhumane can humans be? It felt utterly and incomprehensibly wrong.
I used to have all the answers about the atonement, but now I just ask why. It seems like God could have saved us all without having to kill himself.
On Holy Friday I went to the Lamentations service, which is basically like a funeral for Jesus. The deacons carried the bier around the church, and we followed and sang dirges. The little girls tossed rose petals into the air, and I wept. I wept for Jesus, for my brother, for my dwindling faith.
* * *
We moved last year, and we have a peach tree in our new backyard. This spring, we worried because the tree remained bare while all the other trees in our yard burst with leaves and blossoms. Finally, some green appeared on the tree, but there weren’t many blooms. We’ve only found one peach so far.
Lee’s poem I quoted above is about eating peaches in the summer. “O, to take what we love inside/to carry within us an orchard, to eat/not only the skin, but the shade,/not only the sugar, but the days.”
The days are sweet with life and death. Each bite of fruit is a reminder of the beauty and life in the world, and of the fact that my brother is not here to enjoy it with me. I remember other foods we shared: snow cream our mother made, homemade ice cream on our grandmother’s porch, sticky rice and chicken in humid Bangkok. I can’t bring him back, but I can remember him.
Death is in the background, but it is coupled with love. The only way I know how to move forward is to accept the presence of both in my life. Maybe this is what the cross means. We cannot escape sorrow, but we are not alone in it, either. We are the blossoms that push through winter and adorn the trees with beauty.
Karissa Knox Sorrell is a poet, writer, and ESL teacher from Nashville, Tennessee. She is the author of the poetry chapbook Evening Body (Finishing Line Press, 2016), and her poems and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Relief, St. Katherine Review, Gravel Mag, and Two Cities Review. You can connect with Karissa at karissaknoxsorrell.com or on Twitter @KKSorrell.