I was fourteen, and she was about eight. Initially, I was surprised by her flippancy and matter-of-factness. I was tempted to look around to see if there was an adult to reprimand or correct her. There was none. She held her brother’s forearm as he lay there, seemingly with little thought, and shook it gently. His wrist, as his whole body, was lifeless and limp, and it flopped back and forth with her motion.
“This isn’t really Dale,” she said. “He’s already in heaven. This is just what he left behind.”
I wondered who had given her these words. Had she been taught them by an equally grieving adult in an attempt to comfort her?
Dale, and his big sister Opal, were “bus kids.” Many churches in the 1970s and the 1980s created ministries in their communities by bussing in unchurched children on Sunday mornings. Our moderate-sized congregation drove fourteen buses throughout local neighborhoods every Sunday to pick up over 400 children. My father began on Saturday visiting the kids as they played outside, speaking to any parents nearby, reminding them that the colorful bus would be there to pick them up the next morning. Opal and Dale were two of these kids, and honestly, some of my favorites.
Opal bounded on the bus most Sundays still munching a piece of toast, hair uncombed. She was full of stories and explanations. Dale was quieter with dark blond hair. Sometimes we called him “Porky,” because he reminded us of the little actor who portrayed Porky in the 1930s Our Gang comedies.
About 1984 six-year-old Dale drowned in a Phoenix canal.
When I learned of his death, I was insistent that I was going to the viewing. It was my first. The room was small and there were few people I recognized.
Opal’s dry eyes and nonchalant way of stroking her brother’s arm or bangs touched me more than an obediently tearful little girl in a corner would have.
That little girl is in her early forties now. The last time I saw her was at her little brother’s wake. I’m not sure if she remembers riding the white bus with Noah’s Ark animals painted across it. I hope so. I don’t know if she remembers any of the bus songs, or me, or even my father, but I do hope she remembers a time when she was loved as a little girl. And I hope she associates that with Jesus.
I hope her words at the viewing were her words, and that they have guided her through life. I hope she sees through new eyes. Our old eyes can see only the tragedy and heartbreak, and it is tragic. But it’s not the end.
I don’t know how Opal’s story ends…or Dale’s for that matter.
I hope to see fully, beyond the tragedy and a small room hosting a blond boy’s viewing. I hope to see with new eyes beyond lost time and missed opportunities. I hope in greater things beyond feeble efforts and self-reliance.
Because hope is more that just plaintive wishes. It is assurance that we haven’t yet seen all that there is to see.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.