My father died, of melanoma, thirty-five years ago on the 30th of March. It was Easter Sunday.
At the hour of his death, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was playing on WFLN, in Philly. It had always been his favorite piece of music. I heard church bells ringing from the Presbyterian chapel down the street — St. Johns, in Devon, Pa. I stood there by my father’s body, listening, the bells pealing over the muffled music of the symphony.
Years before, when I was in college, my mother used to send me a hyacinth on Easter. I would stumble out of my dormitory room to find the flower sitting on the floor in the hall before making my way to Wesleyan’s Memorial Chapel, sometimes so hung over that standing up straight was itself an Easter miracle. One Sunday, the college chaplain just looked out at us all and said, joyfully, “He is not here!”
He was quoting Matthew 28:6, the verse where the angel speaks to the grieving Mary Magdalene: “Do not be afraid, for I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen, just as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”
I had grown up practicing a strange mash-up of atheism, my mother’s Lutheran faith and the Catholicism my father had abandoned as a teenager. Then, in my 20s, I started going to Quaker meetings. One Easter Sunday an elder stood up and said, “What does this day mean? Did Christ really rise from the dead?” He smiled, and shrugged.
“We weren’t there, so who knows? All we really know of God is what we can see in the eyes of our fellow men and women. But today is the day we think, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if it were true?’”
That very particular interpretation of Easter stayed with me. Since then I have tried, now and again, to look for God in the eyes of my fellow humans. Wouldn’t it be nice if the story of the resurrection were true? It would.
But a lot of times, when I look in strangers’ eyes, instead of God I just see fear and anger.
That is not all I see there, of course. Lately I see other things, too — signs of longing, signs of hope. After a year of worldwide death and despair, something new may be finally beginning. Like the song we hear as Dorothy and company make their way to the gates of the Emerald City: You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark, you’re out of the night. Step into the sun, step into the light.
The title of this song, I recently learned, is “Optimistic Voices.”
Easter is about rebirth: life from death, spring from winter, hope from despair. I am uncertain and skeptical about much of the Bible. I call myself a Christian, but even now I cannot honestly tell you if I believe an actual man named Jesus was resurrected. Certain parts of the story feel sketchy.
But my faith is less about that than the power of love: like the love my mother had for me, sending me a hyacinth when I was far from home; like the love my father had for Beethoven, and for my mother and sister and me; like the love that we could all have for each other if we were only less full of fear.
Twenty years to the day after my father died, I was sitting on top of a volcano on Easter Island, the most remote inhabited island in the world. I’d been sent there to do a story on the way tourism was transforming the island, a place famous for its moai, the iconic stone heads carved from volcanic rock. On my final morning on the island, I arranged to be driven to the quarry where the heads were carved, in order to be on the volcano’s rim at the moment of sunrise.
I had somehow forgotten that it was the anniversary of my father’s death. As I moved alone through a thick fog up the side of the volcano I felt like I was being watched.
Suddenly, I heard footsteps in the dark. One of those big stone heads suddenly loomed out of the mist; it was a particularly huge one that my guide the day before had told me was called “grandfather.”
I never met my paternal grandfather; he died when my own father was 12. But I had a sudden flash of him as I looked at that statue. “Oh papa,” I thought. “Just let me pass.”
The footsteps grew closer. My heart pounded. I had no idea what was drawing near.
And then a wild horse stepped out of the fog. The horse looked right at me. For a long moment, we stared at each other, the horse and I. Then he turned and disappeared back into the mist.
A half-hour later, I was on the rim of the volcano, watching the sun burst above the Pacific. As the sun drew higher in the sky, the morning fog burned away.
That was when I remembered that it was the anniversary of my father’s death.
The place where I was now had been called Rapa Nui by its native people, but Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen called it Easter Island, after the day he first arrived in 1722.
Did Christ rise from the dead? I don’t know. I wasn’t there. But I know that I am here on earth because my father loved my mother. There are hyacinths rising in my garden. I know what it is like to be loved.
He is not here. But his spirit is all around: in the music of Beethoven, in the pealing of church bells, in the rays of the sun rising above the ocean. And in our reckless, inexplicable hope for this banged-up world, a place so beautiful and so sad.
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