Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah? – Elisha, 2 Kings 2
I’ve been thinking lately about the link between memory and sound—the aural shape of memory—and how certain sounds can send you falling headlong into different corners of your memory. There are simple ones like when you hear a certain series of notes and you’re back in middle school with that one girl, or that one boy, listening to your favorite song on the radio and contemplating the pros and cons of reaching out to hold their hand. Or the more complex ones, like how just this morning the crunching sound of my boot through the top crust of day-old snow was the exact same sound made by the frozen body of my cocker spaniel puppy when I dislodged it from its icy tomb that fateful winter afternoon in sixth grade.
It was, by all other counts, a typical winter day in Michigan. Crusty snow covered the ground, hard as concrete. The rafters of the sky sagged low, laden with impenetrable grey clouds who had just begun to unleash their crystalline moisture into the air. The sun, hidden for days on end, had already begun its quiet descent by the time I got home from school. The clouds had won again. The sun gave up early, saving its strength for tomorrow’s attempt to break through. It was February. The bleak midwinter had been named for days like this.
I was eleven. Old enough to be by myself for a few hours while the rest of the family was occupied. Young enough not to know my way around a crisis. My dad had brought me home after school and immediately left for Indiana to help his brother move, hoping to get out from under the threatening blizzard in the fading daylight if he could. My mom was with my sister at the hospital for her speech therapy. My brother was at some sports practice or other. I was home alone with the dogs.
My first job after getting home was to let the dogs out of their makeshift kennel adjacent to our home, where the dogs spent each day while we were away at work and school. We were especially proud of the insulated doghouse my dad built—with a shingled roof and a small front porch—where the dogs could huddle up on days like this one to stay warm.
We had three dogs at the time. Teddy, an old and angry Lhasa apso; Maggie, an affable and lovable golden retriever; and my dog Tina, a cocker spaniel puppy all ears and joy. We’d gotten Tina that summer, a tiny red and white ball of energy and exuberance with floppy red ears and red freckles on her nose which were scientifically proven to undermine anyone’s powers of resistance to her.
This particular day had been a momentous one for Tina. It was her first day outside in the kennel with the older dogs. For her first six months we’d kept her inside in her cage so the bigger dogs could get to know her, and so she could get big enough to stay warm and hold her own through whatever happens when three dogs share a hundred square feet of kennel for nine hours in the middle of February.
After my dad left for Indiana I opened the door of the pen to let the dogs out. They blitzed instinctively up onto the deck and through the open slider into the house. I followed close behind the whirring mass of fur and barks and slobber. Inside, along the same wall as the slider sat Tina’s cage, empty and ajar. But I hadn’t let her out. And I hadn’t seen her run in the house. I called her name but only Maggie responded. Maggie, always hungry for love and fiercely loyal. Then I remembered this was Tina’s first day in the kennel, so I made my way back out to get her.
I called her name again. Nothing. I checked the doghouse. Empty. I scanned the kennel for holes in the fencing. All’s well. Then I saw it: a small mound of brownish-red fur on the ground. “Tina! Wake up, silly!” I went to pick her up but my cold fingers snapped trying to get her body and came up empty.
It was then, in that dumb silence, my fingers hovering confusedly in the air, that I really stopped to look at what was right in front of me. Her reddish-brown fur was dappled in bright red blotches. The same spots speckled the snow. Her small body was punctured with holes. She was not sleeping.
But my eleven-year-old brain could not compute. I was lost, like I had crossed some invisible threshold, passing from a world that was predictable and familiar into another world that was senseless and alien. I reached down once more, this time with purpose, and tore her small, fragile, gorgeous, adorable, terrorized body from the ice, the hardened snow popping distinctly as it yielded her body to my trembling hands.
It is at this point in the memory—and the specific actions I took following this moment—where I must exert conscious effort to offer my eleven-year-old self compassion. This was my life’s first bald and beautiful confrontation with that ancient enemy Death. And for the next twenty years, whenever I told this story, I narrated the following events with a combination of humor and self-mockery, thinking it an embarrassing display of adolescent innocence. I’m learning to know better now, to see in my childlike response to this trauma the invisible hand of the Master apprenticing me into that ancient and sacred and priestly art of holding presence as another crosses that inevitable threshold from life into death.
But, ignorant of that and so much else, I carried Tina’s cold, hard body into the kitchen. The other dogs instinctively kept their distance, hiding in another room, uncertain of what punishment might await their incomprehensible sin. I listened to my own animal instinct and brought a space heater into the kitchen to defrost her back to life.
As her body began to thaw, I held a silent vigil beside her and watched the pool of water slowly grow around her warming body. I stared at her in silence for what felt like hours, a lifetime. All of a sudden I saw her broken body beneath me, as if for the first time, and realized she was not asleep. She was not simply cold. She was dead. I now saw the teeth wounds we later discovered were made by our proud and territorial Lhasa, somewhat ironically named Teddy. I saw the blood. The pool of thawed ice around her body turned red. The whole scene turned red and I saw Tina steal Teddy’s bone and run away to a corner of the kennel to enjoy it alone. I heard Teddy’s growls and warning barks. I saw Maggie’s indecisive hesitation as she was pulled between loyalty and protection. I heard Tina’s yelps. And then all was silent. The silence was deafening in my ears.
My eleven-year-old self—and my forty-year-old self—cannot understand how such loving and playful animals can be so devastatingly violent, how Tina could be so alive and bright and beautiful in the morning and so cold and hard and pummeled by the evening. I cannot understand why I sat alone beside her and no one could hold me or help me.
Sam Wells once said, “Our culture’s operational assumption has long been that the central problem of human existence is mortality.” The fear of death drives humans to both madness and miracles. We cannot accept our limitations. We refuse the reality and inevitability of death. But, Wells asks, “What if it turned out that the fundamental human problem was not mortality after all? What if it turned out that all along the fundamental human problem was isolation?” Are we fundamentally, existentially, and irrefutably alone?
I agree with Wells. I had never truly felt alone in my life until that moment. Cell phones didn’t exist. I didn’t know any of our neighbors. I had no crisis plan to enact. I was utterly alone. And I was more shaken by that fact than by Tina’s death. I had no one to bear the trauma with me, no one to cry with, no one to touch me, no one to say with their body “it’s going to be okay.”
I had never received a Sunday School lesson on lament up to that point in my life. I think I could have spelled it, but I do not think I could have defined it. Now I know that true lament cannot be captured in words in a dictionary. Lament is the body’s aching response to loss. It is instinctive. In its purest form it is the expression of sheer presence in the face of suffering. It is the soul’s groans that only the Spirit can decipher.
With no one to shepherd me into what came next, I acted instinctively. I rose up, as if outside my body, and staggered toward the garage door. I opened the door into a world I could not comprehend and would never return from. Into the existential void of the empty garage I cried, with a force of passion that still shocks me today, “Why God?!”
It briefly echoed off the concrete and metal and snow-sopped carpet path to the exterior door. Then another, deeper silence descended, which muffled my heavy breathing and my pounding heart like a wet quilt.
My cry could not hold back the isolation I felt. Abandoned by parents and pets, logic and lament failed to resolve my situation. Defeated by the efforts and embarrassed by my impassioned outburst to an empty garage which felt to me like a microcosm of heaven, I crumpled to a heap next to Tina’s body and silently wept. I may have fallen asleep. I lost all sense of time.
I awoke to a tongue licking my face. Maggie had overcome her shame and returned to hold vigil with me. She lay down so that her breast and front legs braced Tina’s body, and her belly and hind legs braced my head, offering her soft, warm body to me as a pillow. Together the three of us lay unmoving for some time.
Maggie shepherded me back to the present, with all its unanswered questions and pain and grief and rage. Her tenderness made room for me and assured me I was, in fact, not alone, the only truth I needed to know.
Her silent presence also honored Tina’s life—she would refuse to leave Tina’s body unattended until we returned her to the frozen earth where her broken body would, come summer, nourish us through raspberries and tomatoes, as all deaths ultimately serve life in the mysterious sacrament of soil and resurrection. Maggie refused to let my pain convince me I was alone. She refused to let Tina be alone until her body was reunited with the ground.
Erazim Kóhak has said that creation absorbs our pain. “When humans no longer think themselves alone, masters of all they survey, when they discern the humility of their place in the vastness of God’s creation, then that creation and its God can share the pain. For the Christians, the Cross symbolized that reality; confronted with it, the human is not freed of grief, but he is no longer alone to bear it. It is taken up, shared.”
Pets have an incredible power to offer this healing balm to our fearful and isolated souls. But so do forests and marshes and hawks and bunnies and mosses and rivers and dragonflies and water buffalo. This is one of the most terrifying and intangible losses we humans, as a species, have suffered at our own hands as climate change ruins the planet and its creatures upon whom our lives depend and without whom our souls will be unable to bear our isolation intact.
For many, pets play a particularly important role in this equation. On this point, the poet Tom Barrett has said:
I can’t talk about God and make any sense,
and I can’t not talk about God and make any sense.
Still, we have pet pounds where we can feel love draped in warm fur,
and sense the whole tragedy of life and death.
We can see there the consequences of carelessness,
and feel there the yapping urgency of life that wants to be lived.
That cold, blustery winter day I experienced something of the elemental paradox of life east of Eden: everything you love will die, and we are never alone.
That empty garage held my lament just as the Jordan River held Elisha’s. In the wake of his master’s disappearance (Elijah had been abruptly taken from him up to heaven in a fiery chariot), and in the face of his own failure to follow his master’s lead (Elisha’s cry came immediately after his failed attempt to divide the Jordan using Elijah’s fallen mantle), he, too, questioned whether he was alone.
Elisha’s lament, quoted in the epigraph above, was no purer than mine, but his was a wiser question. I hadn’t lived long enough to know that there are few if any satisfying responses to the question “Why?” in the face of death’s maw. “Why?” separates you from your experience and is animated by resistance to it. The wiser question is “Where?” because it knows that knowing the reason for an experience doesn’t make you feel better, but companionship makes the load easier to bear, because you do not bear it alone. Most of our experiences do not have self-evident reasons behind them, Romans 8:28 notwithstanding.
Asking “Where” assumes that God is present, though obscured. In response to my own lament, God graciously answered Elisha’s question instead of my own: in the gentle tongue pressed to my forehead. In the soft belly offered as a pillow. In my childlike will to find a way to love my dog into death. In the power of the earth to transform death into life. In the way all creation waits for us to open our hearts and bear our souls that our pain might be held, shared, absorbed.
Sometimes, out of the blue, when a well-sealed door opens just so, changing the pressure in the room as air is sucked from one space into another, I am whipped back to that moment as my young, thin body leans over a threshold I cannot see—and would be too afraid to walk across if I could—and shouts passionately into the vacuum.
We all hold losses and griefs and trauma that we would wish away from ourselves or our loved ones if we could. But we can’t, of course. What we can do is listen to our stories—and each other’s—for they are wise and patient teachers. These days I am learning to receive the aural shape of memory as a reminder that my life is speaking to me in mysterious and powerful ways, and certain sounds are an invitation to lean in and listen. If you listen along with me we may discover, along with Elisha, that we are never alone.
 Sam Wells, “Rethinking Service,” in The Cresset (Easter, 2013) 6–14. Accessed online at http://thecresset.org/2013/Easter/Wells_E2013.html on January 2, 2021.
 Erazim Kóhak, The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Moral Sense of Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 45.
 Tom Barrett, “What’s in the Temple?” in Poetry of Presence: An Anthology of Mindfulness Poems, ed. by Phyllis Cole-Dai and Ruby Wilson (West Hartford, CT: Grayson Books, 2017), 70–71.
Thank you, Travis, for leaning into the sounds and shapes of your own memories… and sharing them. I have learned too that sharing trauma and loss opens new doors for God and others to offer a soft belly. I am so grateful you have paid attention to your journey in this way. Students and family and friends are richer because of it.
Thank you Travis.
Blessings to you dear brother.
Hi Bob! Thanks for reading it. Miss you.
Thanks Travis. As you suggest, the shift from asking where? instead of why? in our grief opens the possibilities of healing and a future. And asking where? opens our hearts to the natural world and its capacity to absorb our pain, as our friend Erazim Kohak pointed out to us years ago now.