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The Visit

(In observance of All Saints Day, I am reprinting a column that was first published in 2016.)

He came to me early in the morning on All Saints Day. As I sat in the darkness of my backyard, he slipped in silently and sat next to me. Without exchanging words, we sat there together and observed the majestic Orion, standing elegantly in the western sky as if guarding all the universe before the breaking of dawn. There was a whisper of wind, the soft rattling of leaves, the nearby wind chimes transforming the slight breeze into lovely notes. 

The memories came flooding. How, on those glorious occasions when I would get to sleep over at his house, he would rise very early and retreat to the silence and darkness of his back porch. There, in the black pre-dawn hours, in that solitary moment, he would smoke a cigarette and drink a coca cola, watching the sky and listening for the birds. I never knew until this moment, with him sitting next to me, that this was his way of praying, of making peace with the world and all that is in it. Until this moment, I never understood that he and I start our day in the same way, searching for that rare moment of unity, of serenity.

The memories continued. How, after praying in his own way, he would rise from the porch steps, return to his bedroom, and finish dressing: the tie, the badge, the suit jacket, the service revolver hidden discreetly underneath. Then he would walk out the door, start up the ’53 Chevy sedan, and head for the old red brick courthouse, for a world filled mostly with long hours and boring stakeouts, but punctuated by the occasional flash of violence. A world inhabited mostly by tough men whose days did not begin in prayer.

As the sun peeked over the eastern horizon, I could sense him silently slipping away. I never turned to see him go, but I knew he was no longer there. I also knew he would come again. We placed his body into the ground in the old Grove Hill cemetery in October of 1969, but I have sensed his presence on other occasions. Somehow, he has always been there. And I knew the reason for this visit. On this All Saints Day, he just dropped by to remind me that we are all surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before us and paved the way. They bravely led ordinary lives. They struggled with the same bewildering interplay of joy and pain, darkness and light, hope and despair. In the end, they completed their course and rested fully in the grace that had seen them through. And now, in a mystery that is beyond words, they cloak us in love. They cheer us on. Tenderly, they watch over us.

Rev. Don Underwood