When I was a child I had a pet rabbit named Lightning, one of a succession of rabbits. One was run over by a car. Dad didn’t tell me until I was twenty-three. He always said, “I dunno, he just got out of the cage and ran away.” Yeah, right Dad.
We donated another rabbit, Cotton, to the Akron Zoo after it scratched my arm and left a scar I can see to this day. The zoo had a little rabbit village. Cotton went with the other rabbits into the little church where they put the feed. I liked the idea of being fed in church.
Lightning didn’t get a chance to chow down on feed at the little rabbit church. One Saturday morning I came downstairs and Dad called me from the basement. “I have some bad news. Lightning died.” There was no apparent cause of death. He just died. But as I walked away from the house toward Pritchard’s Drug Store, prepared to drown my grief in a nickel’s worth of candy, I worked the sad magic of a ten-year-old.
I knew my grandfather was sick. Dad had told me about the cancer around Christmas time. At some point soon I would have to experience the same emptiness I had felt five months earlier when Mom’s father had died. The same feeling I was having now, at the corner of Roslyn and Maple, as I walked to the drug store. Moving across the concrete squares, taking care not to step on a single crack, I thought the terrible thought out loud—“If Lightning has to die, then Papa might as well die too. Let’s get it all over with.” There. I said it. I prayed it. And then I stepped on a crack. A few days later Papa died. Just as I had prayed. I dared not talk to a soul about it. All through the funeral all I could think about was that I had prayed a terrible prayer an awful God had answered.
I trudged unknowingly through the cycles of grief. Every now and then I thought about what happened at the corner of Roslyn and Maple, but I pushed it deep inside. I grew up and the torn memory was relegated to some cobwebbed corner in my heart. But these things always find their way to the light of day.
Thirty-three years after my grandfather died I was on vacation with my family. After getting gas at a station just off Interstate 70, I looked across the highway to a cemetery on a hill. Though I really had no idea where my grandfather was buried, I had a sense this serene spot in the gently rolling hills of eastern Ohio was his final resting place. I had only been there once, on that cold April day in 1961. Yet here it was the summer of 1994, and I was confident an unhealed memory lay nearby.
Over the mild protestations of my family I headed into the cemetery and drove around until it felt right. I stopped the car and started walking past the gravestones, all flat markers flush with the grass. I walked about thirty feet and looked at seven or eight markers before my heart caught in my throat. There was Papa’s grave. I fell to my knees and cried. I pulled weeds away from the marker, touched the stone and traced the letters. I had not been to that spot in a third of a century. I had never asked where the grave was. I had not wanted to know.
But now, the grave marker wet with tears, I finally redeemed the memory of a child’s lonely prayer. I thanked God the Spirit speaks for us the words we do not know to speak, and I finally forgave a little child for being, well, a little child, full of the kind magical thinking that can hobble a memory for decades.
It is all these little graces, given quietly in tender moments, that convince me there is a God in whose image I am made, a God who gently cleanses vulnerable souls.
Photo (Flickr CC) by David Ohmer