Nunc dimittis

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Death was not unknown to Simeon.  His mother had died in childbirth – it was not uncommon in those days.  And he had been raised by an older sister – barely a teenager herself.  But his sister died of consumption when she was still a young woman.  And Simeon had nursed her during her last, long, fitful, coughing, dying days.  He could not, of course, remember his mother, though her death was very much a part of who he was; missing her was a part of who he was; he was a motherless child.

He could, however, remember the death of his sister.  He remembered the pallor of her vacant face on the day she died.  He remembered closing her eyelids, and letting go of her hand for the last time.  He remembered the women from their neighborhood who came to prepare her body for burial.  He remembered their tears, and their sobs of mourning, and he remembered the business-like way they went about caring for her body: they had done this before, more than once.  He remembered filling in her grave with his cousins, her own children, whose sibling he’d always considered himself, and not without some cause, if not by reason of blood.

It was not too many years later that his father was taken from him, too, in an accident involving an ox-cart hauling stone.  The accident didn’t kill Simeon’s father, it only broke his leg.  But the fix for a broken leg was not so easy in those days.  A recovering invalid for a few weeks; eventually infection set in, causing his father great pain.  The fever did not last for too long; Simeon witnessed this too.  He saw the sickness and the pain wrack his old man, and eventually take him without too much of a fight.  And again the women came to deal with the body.  And again there was the mound of dry, dusty dirt to be shoveled on top of the corpse in the ground, one silent, tearful scoop at a time.

For a while, death seemed at bay.  It was never far, of course, in a city like Jerusalem, but it would at least be some years before it invaded his own household again.  Simeon married – a sweet, plain, strong girl who bore children easily and was a good mother to them.  They lived not far from her family.  His four children all survived the dangerous first year when infants are so vulnerable to so many things, at which point so many families those days lost at least one.  But not Simeon’s kids.  They were growing up fast. 

Then, in middle school, his second oldest came down with something – spots all over, a soaring fever that wouldn’t go away for days.  The three other children were sent away to their cousin’s house.  Spices and incense and prayers were deployed in and around and on the child. Wet compresses.  Olive oil was rubbed into his skin for relief.  But the fever wouldn’t leave.  The boy stopped eating – too weak.  And they couldn’t get enough water into him.  He was shrinking – this beautiful healthy boy with thick hair and dark eyes – shrinking right before their eyes, wasting away.  Because he was a strong boy he held on.  But his eyes were now sunken, and it was almost as though he was aging in fast-forward.  If only he would eat!  If only he could drink!  But he became weaker and weaker.  His voice – still years away from dropping into lower registers – became little more than a squeak.  If the fever abated for a day, it came back stronger over night.  Until, at last, it took him.

What does a father do on the day his ten-year old son dies?   Is it enough to cry?  Do you let the women who come for the body see your tears?  Do you let your wife glimpse them through the vale of her own?  Do you accuse God and make demands of him?  How do you tell his brothers and his sisters, who, of course, already know?  How do you stare down again into the grave?  What are you to make of that small-ish bundle swaddled too well in these last bed clothes?  Why would a father cast dirt on his son’s body?  There is something wrong about this, and yet inescapably necessary.  You can’t leave him uncovered, any more than you would fail to pull the covers over his sleeping body at night.  But this blanket of earth will never be drawn back.  No sleepy child will emerge from it in the morning looking for his breakfast. 

And so you do what you must; he did what he must.  Tightening his jaw, and fixing his eyes into stare that would not peek to the left or to the right; he heard the prayers sung, the women cry.  He stepped to his place by the grave and the mound of dirt beside it.  His hands knew the feel of this shovel; he had used it before.  He decided that he would pretend he did not know what was in the hole he was filling back in with earth.  He was just doing a job that needed doing.  He was not burying his son – that would be too cruel.  But someone had to fill in this dangerous hole, and here he was to do it.  If anyone spoke to him, he had no idea what they said.  He just had to finish with this pile of dirt and get it over with.  He didn’t know who took the shovel from him.  He didn’t know who kept it, and where it came from when it was needed at times like this, to be thrust into his hands.  But now it was back in whose-ever custody, and out of his hands.  He was finished with this awful work.

Not long after the boy died, Simeon started to have dreams.  First he dreamt of his mother, and he wondered if she had actually been so beautiful in real life.  She was beautiful in his dreams, bathed with light from somewhere.  And she sang to him in his dreams, as though he was still a child.

Before long, in his dreams, his mother was joined by his sister, who added harmony to the songs their mother sang.  It was as though they had been able to rehearse for just this purpose: to sing the songs to him in his dreams that they could not sing to him in his waking hours.

In time the two women’s voices were joined by a man’s voice.  It was his father.  Sometimes his father came to him alone in his dreams, sometimes he was with the others, as though they were reunited in his dreams.  And Simeon dreamt that he sang along with the three of them.  Perhaps he did sing in his sleep; he had no idea.

These were not bad dreams; they were sweet dreams.  Simeon was not jolted out of his sleep by them, rather, he was lulled into a deeper, more contented and restful sleep.  It was not disturbing to him to be visited in his dreams by his mother, his sister, his father.  There was a soft embrace in these dreams, that sometimes seemed perfectly matched to the soft embrace of his wife sleeping beside him, her breath on the back of his neck, her arm resting on his shoulder, her deep breathing adding a gentle rhythm to the songs of his dreams.

Some nights he dreamt of his son.  And when his son entered his dreams there was no one else in them.  All other voices stopped their singing, all the other night visitors left his dreams to make room for the boy: his body restored, his eyes dark and alive again, his hair, a little longer than his father would have wanted it, glistening from the light around him.  And when the boy began to sing his clear treble voice, still unchanged, was almost too much, almost too beautiful.  He sang from the Psalms, Simeon recognized the words. 

Sometimes he sang laments:

“By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept.” 

But more often he sang of hope:

“Yea, the sparrow hath found her an house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young….

“Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee; in whose heart are thy ways…

“Who, going through the vale of misery use it for a well, and the pools are filled with water.”

In the darkest hours of the night, the deepest hours of his sleep, the singing voices of his beloved dead would cease.  And he would dream of a bright light – the light that surrounded those who sang to him in his dreams.  The light had no voice, and there was nothing written in it.  There was no music coming from it, but there was a message in the light, a message meant for Simeon.  The only sound he could hear was something like the beating of wings, softly but powerfully, as though the wings could beat that way forever to carry whatever creature they belonged to across the universe without effort.

The message came to him this way: without words or language, only somehow spelled out in the light, heard in the long, slow beating of the mighty wings.  It took many nights of dreams for Simeon to put the message together, to remember it in his waking hours.  And he could not have explained it to you if he had to, but he knew from his dreams that Messiah was coming, and that he would not taste death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.

For years Simeon dreamed like this.  He told no one of his dreams; he had no need to; not even his wife.  And death stayed at bay.

Then his wife began to get forgetful, and to look at him, from time to time with a vacant look, as though she didn’t know where she was, or who he was.  She would snap out of it, and they both pretended that nothing had happened, because almost nothing had happened.  But these episodes began to become more frequent, and to last a little longer.

Simeon’s dreams occurred less frequently now, but the memory of them was palpable.  He sometimes felt he could hear the beating of those mighty wings even while he was awake.  He sometimes felt as though there was a light somewhere inside of him, guiding him while he was awake.  And he sometimes felt as though he understood what it would mean that he would not die before he had seen Messiah – though at other times merely thinking such a thought seemed like an exercise in nonsense.

Simeon had known death so well and so personally all his life; he felt as though death had been a nearly constant, unwanted neighbor who sometimes moved into his own home.  And death had always brought with it the tears, the sadness, the women to care for the body, and the shovel to fill in the grave.

His dreams did not come to him from death – they were a kind of gift that came from somewhere else, from the light.  But they were few and far between now, and not much consolation as he watched his wife slip deeper and deeper into dementia.

Mostly she was quiet and somewhat absent, staring off into some vague middle distance.  But when he had to move her from one place to another -for meals, for instance – she could easily become ornery.  Sometimes she remembered his name, but when she did, it was often when she would lean into his shoulder and whimper as he stroked her hair, and she would ask him, “Why, Simeon, why?  How long, Simeon, how long?”

Eventually even this communication came to an end.  More and more she was confined to her bed; there was no reason to get up out of it anyway.  He brought her her meals on a tray, and propped pillows behind her back to make her comfortable.  He made her Cream of Wheat when she could not eat anything more solid.  And he fed her spoons-full of yogurt, and when the children brought over containers of homemade chicken soup, he shared the meal with her from the same bowl, the same spoon.

He would have appreciated dreams in the night, but there were almost no dreams any more.  There was only the sound of her weaker, less-steady breathing.  And there was the faint echo in his head of the beating of a pair of wings, and a slight glimmer of light in his mind’s eye as he tried to fall asleep.

When she finally died, his own daughters brought with them the women, and sang with them the songs of mourning, and organized the sitting of shiva.  His first-born son was there at the graveside – a man now.  And he helped with the shovel when the time came to fill in the grave, using only the backside of the shovel.  Like his father, he fixed his eyes straight ahead, and tightened his jaw, and did the work that needed to be done.  He shed his tears, but not too many, like his father.  And when he stood by the now-covered grave, holding the shovel with his right hand leaning just on the top of the handle, his father Simeon, standing next to him, put his left hand on top of his son’s right hand, leaning on him, leaning on the shovel, and they dared not look at each other then.

And when Simeon went to bed that night, and for night after night for many months after that, he lay there awake, with nobody next to him.  He remembered his mother, and his sister, his father, his second son, his sweet, plain, strong wife.  He strained to hear singing in the night, but he could hear none.  He thought he could see a light far away in his mind’s eye.  He could still hear the faintest memory of the echo of the beating of wings.  Eventually he would drift off to sleep.

For months he had nothing to do.  His children provided for his needs.  They brought him food on the nights that he refused to accept their invitations to dinner.  His grandchildren delivered bowls of stew and loaves of bread wrapped in clean kitchen towels.  There was nothing for him to do.

He started to go for walks through Jerusalem – and always he found himself drawn to the temple.  He did not venture in through the gates.  For months he only walked around the outer wall of the temple.  As he walked, he hummed to himself songs – and since they were not songs he had ever heard before, he suspected that they were the songs that the dead had sung to him in his dreams.  He did not know anymore whether or not death was something to be feared or welcomed; he could not tell if death would be his friend or his enemy.  He only knew how much a part of his life death had been, and that it had never brought happiness.

One day he ventured in through the gates, into the outer courts of the temple.  Here it was OK for a lay person like him to wander, to sit, to pray, and to watch the transactions take place of those buying and selling for the temple sacrifices.  So he walked, and he sat, and he hummed to himself the songs that he hoped were the songs of the dead.  And from time to time he would weep, quietly, gently, shedding only a few tears, but no less real for the scarcity of them.  And so he sat or paced about the outer court of the temple for month after month, in good weather and in bad.

And one day, as he sat on a stone bench by the wall, half dozing, he heard a sound that sounded like the clear, strong beating of a pair of wings, a sound he remembered well.  And before he could even open his eyes (he knew they were still shut) he could see a bright light, brighter than the sun. 

And when he opened his eyes he saw coming in his direction, a grungy couple carrying an infant child in their arms.

The sound of beating wings was growing louder and louder.  And the light was still shining – his eyes were now open, but he could see that a light bathed them all around, though he suspected none of them could see the light, and he was right.

Simeon felt himself lifted up onto his feet, almost as if the wings were his.  He felt himself carried forward.  And he could see in the light that no one else could see, the faces of his mother, his sister, his father, his second-born son.  And he could hear their voices singing the same songs they had always sung in his dreams.  He was carried in this way to the little family of three making their way to a table to buy a pair of doves.

Everything seemed to stop.  The money changers stopped changing money, the vendors stopped vending, the little family stopped their progress.  A hush fell on the outer court – who knows what was happening inside the temple now?  And no one knew why any of this was happening.

Simeon seemed taller than he had ever been.  Although his feet were on the ground, he seemed somehow to be seeing all this from a few inches above.  To his eyes, the entire courtyard was bathed in the light that he had only known inside his dreams before, but now it was shining out in the open, and he could see where it was coming from.

The light was coming from the child in the girl’s arms.  He had no idea if anyone else could see it – and he knew it hardly mattered.  The sound of the beating of the wings was ferocious but completely unthreatening: he drew power from it, as though they were his wings.

And he opened his mouth, knowing that he was about to sing, but he didn’t know what he was to sing.  And this is what it was:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace;

for mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

which thou hast prepared before the face of thy people;

to be a light to lighten the Gentiles;

and to be the glory of thy people Israel.”

A few days later Simeon’s son listened as his father breathed his last breath.  With his own fingers he closed his father’s eyelids, and his heart ached as he pulled his hand out of the grasp of his father’s hand for the last time.  And when the women came he let them do their work.  And he stood by the grave the next day, and he took hold of the shovel that his father had held before him, and flipped it the wrong way round so as to use only the back of the head of the shovel to fill in his father’s grave.  And his own son helped him to do it.

And that night when he fell asleep he had a dream that he couldn’t quite remember the next day, but he knew it was a dream bathed in light, and he thought he could hear the beating of wings somewhere.  And somehow he knew that he was dreaming a dream that his father had dreamed before him, except that at the end of the dream there was something he knew his father had not dreamed:  there was just the image of this child Jesus, carried in his mother’s arms through the outer court of the temple.  And with this vision he could hear the voice of his father singing a song in a clear voice.  And when he heard this song in his dreams, Simeon’s son knew that it was more than a song of the dead, it was a song of the living:

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

Posted on February 3, 2012 .