Sam carried himself like the lead in a Disney body-swap caper. The soul of a stubborn, ultimately warmhearted old man inhabiting a first-grader’s body.
His voice creaked slightly, the sound of hinges opening the door to his pithy, proverbial way of speaking. The jokes he cracked about his interfaith family would send a vaudeville comic’s eyes rolling.
We all knew Sam was sick. We came to understand the depth and degree of his illness as the year progressed. He showed up to class less and less. When he was there, every breath came with a wheeze—whether or not he accepted help from a machine. His countenance grew heavier; his frame thinned.
After Sam died, his mother—a familiar face—visited our class, walking us through the end of the story, bearing witness to his last moments. Later in the year, we gathered outside the school to say goodbye. Small hands smoothed the dirt around a hopeful sapling planted in Sam’s memory. Together, we offered a Langston Hughes poem, our words traveling out like a eulogy and up like a prayer.
The first death I remember, sealed by the first poem I learned. The only poem I still can recite from memory says so much in six short lines:
I loved my friend
He went away from me
There’s nothing more to say
The poem ends
Soft as it began—
I loved my friend.
In times of theological distress, or as I sift through disappointments, false choices compete for my attention. Grow up and take it like a man, whatever that means, or fight to see the world through boyhood’s eyes. More days than not, I live caught between exhortations—Jesus’s call to faith like a child, Paul’s counsel to leave childish things behind.
And strange as it might seem, Sam and Langston Hughes rush back to my thirty-eight-year-old mind more and more these days.
Perhaps that elementary-school eulogy supplies just a little more fight as I try to hold on to wonder and wide eyes in the presence of the hard and unforgiving. Perhaps it returns on account of my son, his years currently equaling only one less than the sum Sam received. I fumbled the hope of heaven as I faced his questions about what we do, where we go when we die. I tried to explain the loss of his great-grandmother—the first death he will recall when he is my age.
Maybe those six lines matter because they form an intersection. Langston Hughes wore a man’s clothes when he penned them. By the time our words hit the atmosphere, Sam had barely found time to be a boy. Hughes words capture the in-between, a step towards preserving something pure in a grown-up world.
Well-meaning adults try to transform tragedy and trial. Their platitudes grope for imagination, for visions of a better place or deeper purpose, but land upon ground well-worn with divots and discolored patches. Mystery surrounds suffering; heavenly light lives somewhere behind the veil of death. I hold little doubt of this. But we don’t know what we don’t know.
Hughes felt the blows of death upon his chin and between his ribs, yet never attempted to explain it all. Rather he named his love and his loss then repeated himself.
This is the true cycle of grief, demanding something of a man yet simple enough for a child to recite. The beat of Hughes’s lines recall sorrow’s song. Finding the repeat sign at the last barline, it sounds itself out again and again, recurring in unexpected moments. Knowing the truth of grief yet clinging to childlike clarity, we set platitudes aside and allow the poem to end as it began, then begin again: I loved my friend.
Here, we lose nothing of the maturity we hoped to have by now; we sacrifice none of our holy imagination or theological tenacity. After all, naming something represents the first step to reckoning with it then releasing it into God’s sovereign care. Adam knew it when he named the animals; we feel it when we call death, disease, anxiety, infertility, or a broken heart exactly what it is.
Hughes makes one misstep within his poem. A time comes when there is something more to say—about God’s mysterious ways, about the promises he keeps. Maybe childlike faith believes that day will come, but never expects it to arrive on our timeline.
The difference between childlike and childish, I’m learning, is the span from one side of a canyon to the other. The childish breathe out words they don’t believe to wrap a bow around life’s greatest questions. The childlike say what they know, but use their imagination to picture something better.
Until they see it in full, they park themselves at Jesus’s feet. And with simple poetry soft on their lips, they call the world what it is even as they remember it will become something else one day.