The young mother sat on the floor beside the small white casket bedecked in white, pink and red flowers, and beside her sat a man in a dark suit and overcoat with a white scarf draped around his neck.
I had told her I planned to be here between 9 and 10 tonight, too late for the funeral vigil, which conflicted with school, and too early for the funeral Liturgy, which conflicted with work, but I wanted to spend a few minutes in prayer for this 12-year-old girl, whose suffering with leukemia was done, and her mother, father, grandmother and little brother, whose suffering was, if not beginning, then certainly intensifying.
I went to a chair as far away from them as I could and closed my eyes and tried to focus on the reason I had come. Before me, at the front of the church, an icon of Christ hung on a cross, his arms open in welcome and surrender. On the other side, the resurrected Christ pulls Adam and Eve from the place of the dead. On the iconostasis in front, he carries a book that reads, “You did not choose me. I chose you.” Overhead a 12-foot-diameter Christ Pantocrator looks down, an icon that always makes me think of my childish view of God as someone who looks down on small creatures to see what they’re up to now.
The voices came from the two sitting on the floor — the child’s parents, though I didn’t know her dad. I couldn’t hear the words, and was trying not to, but their quiet tones taunted my reluctant curiosity with the observation that the man was speaking English and the woman Russian. (In fact, she speaks excellent English with a Russian accent, but at that distance and volume, the Russian inflection, vowels and tone came across without the words.)
Above the altar, the Theotokos — Virgin Mary — sat enthroned with the child Christ on her lap. Mark Twain said that anyone over 40 is responsible for his own face, and it has to be part of the sorrow of losing a child never to know what sort of face she would create for herself. The Theotokos herself faced that specific sorrow (along with many others) — her son was a young adult when he went to the cross and hadn’t had time to “make” his own face in Twain’s sense.
The dad collected himself, looked around the church, and left. The mother planned to spend the entire night there, alone if necessary. She began to read Psalms — the same practice Orthodox Christians do from Holy Friday to the beginning of the Easter Vigil Liturgy on Holy Saturday — we call it keeping watch at the tomb. I don’t know if the funeral practice came first or the Paschal practice, but tying the two together, we experience it as a preparation for both separation and resurrection.
When parishioners pray the Psalms at the tomb of Christ, though, there’s a sense of anticipation that none of us can avoid — Pascha’s coming; Pascha is almost here; soon we’ll be crying, “Christ is risen!” and breaking eggs together and opening Pascha baskets and feasting.
But I heard the mother’s voice, soft and yet clear, praying the anguish of David, and knew that Pascha is a very long way off for her, for she faces a seemingly endless Lent that she’s aware hasn’t really begun yet.
If you’re praying people, please remember Irina, whose grief is unfathomable.