I used to pick up rocks when I went into work at the hospital.
Sometimes I’d ask God for words and opportunities. And then, at the end of the shift, as I walked out, I dropped the rock, letting go of the day.
It was a routine to help me delineate between hospital caring and the rest of life.
I stopped, as best as I can remember, near the beginning of the virus cases showing up at our hospital, and then dying at our hospital. In spite of the best efforts of, well, of everyone. I think that the boundary between work and life evaporated. Everything was changing and caring and questioning. A rock no longer was enough to create safe and clear space.
The other day I was standing on a beach, covered with stones. They were, when I thought about it, about the size of the ones I used to pick up. But I didn’t think about it. I simply picked one up and threw it into Whitefish Bay. And then another one. And another one. And another one. And I started crying.
I didn’t throw one for every death I witnessed, or for all of my friends who are facing the loss of loved ones. I didn’t throw one for each of the 700,000 Americans who died in the last 18 months as a result of the virus, or the 2.8 million who die in a usual year.
Grief doesn’t often have a one-to-one correspondence with symbolic acts.
But grief does, somehow or another, need a way out. I threw rocks. And Nancy and I talked. And walked the shore.
Two days later, we went out to the point one last time for this trip. We started walking along the shore, and then I picked up a rock and headed back to the literal point of sand that marks the mouth of Whitefish Bay. I wanted to tie all the stress, all the grief, all the weight I think that I absorb, onto that rock and toss it into the water.
I sort of inarticulately prayed something about that. (Sometimes we like big personal symbolic gestures.)
In the 5 minutes it had taken since I stood at the point, four birds had arrived.
I apologized to them, took their pictures for them, and then braced and threw my rock.
I’m not good at throwing. It ended up behind me, in the water to my left. The chuckle at the birds turned into laughter at my inability to cast my grief into the waters. I tossed another stone as I laughed.
And I went back up the beach to Nancy.