July Was the Cruelest Month | Sojourners

July Was the Cruelest Month

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July was the cruelest month, with apologies to T.S. Eliot.

July was when grass and people died, when flowers withered in the afternoon heat and parents secretly counted down the days until school begins and the screaming frenzy stops.

The July days stretched into oblivion, and like the lizard darting across the scorched sidewalk in front of my path, I sought refuge in the shade and air conditioning.

In July 2015, Sandra Bland died in police custody in Waller County, Texas, and six days later Samuel DuBose was shot by a University of Cincinnati police officer during a nonviolent traffic stop.

Seven days later Bobbi Kristina Brown died after six months in hospice care since being found facedown in a bathtub, unresponsive, on Jan. 31, in much the same condition her mother Whitney Houston was found dead three years earlier.

A movement has arisen in the past year to protest police brutality and the unjust killing of African Americans — an uncomfortable realization that the dream of civil rights has gone unrealized in a still-racist America. It's called Black Lives Matter, but in the summer of 2015, life seems cheap.

As of July 30, the city of Chicago has experienced 266 homicides in 2015 — with 55 in July alone. The average age of the dead: 28. Seventy-seven percent of victims were black.

A deadly summer is not only an American problem. Fifty-nine people died under torture in Syria in June 2015, almost two a day.

Countless migrants risked their lives for new life and died in the process: the Rohingya people of Myanmar in Southeast Asia were left to perish on rickety boats; Africans and Middle Easterners rushed the English Channel tunnel, and a man was crushed to death by a truck on July 29. Central Americans and Mexicans died while riding atop La Bestia, while others crossed the Rio Grande only to languish in crowded Family Detention Centers in New Mexico and Texas.

Donald Trump called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists, and went on to lead the 16 candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

Lives — all lives, but especially those with black or brown skin, or born as refugees, or even the unborn — seemed cheap in July 2015, and yet all around the country Americans continued to blithely deny death, drinking our protein shakes and taking our vitamins.

My Grandpa John — my dad's dad — died when I was in third grade. He lived nearby, and he enjoyed dropping by unannounced on Saturday mornings or Thursday evenings. I remember three things about him distinctly: the lingering smell of cologne and cigarettes that lasted on his leather gloves my dad wore well into my high school years; the sound and smell of the disgusting cherry throat spray he had to use every few minutes in the months before he died, while throat and lung cancer ravaged his ability to eat and to speak; and finally the ritual he performed every spring and summer Saturday morning when he came to visit our house.

He'd park in the street, walk up the driveway, and pause in the rocks in the front lawn — stooping down carefully to observe the battered flowers my mom and dad planted each Minnesota spring in anticipation of the return of life to the winter tundra outdoors.

I'm not even sure how tall he was — to me he seemed a giant — and yet when he kneeled down, he was at eye level with the violets and marigolds and perennial flowers in front of him, in tones of lavender and orange and gold and whatever had been on special at the neighborhood nursery weeks before.

His knees and ankles and thighs and calves had to hurt when he did it, but he kneeled nonetheless, bending carefully to remove each withered petal from the plants below. Picking carefully, he gathered them into his hands, pruning gently, making space for petals to push through.

Recently I've found myself paying homage to his memory. I buy the $3 Trader Joe’s flowers on Monday afternoons for home and the office, and the rest of the week I carefully care for the blossoms — each day removing wilted petals, trimming stems, replacing dirty water.

Sometimes it seems a romantic waste of time when every moment counts — when work and church and child and spouse and friends could use my time more than these pitiful petals — and yet each time I do it I think of Grandpa John.

It was the smoking, perhaps, that led to the throat and lung cancer and heart attacks that eventually killed him in 1993, and I carried with me those three deep memories: the scent on my dad's leather gloves, his cherry throat spray, and the way he pruned our dead petals.

At his funeral our family was overwhelmed by a crowd of strangers, who said they knew John from AA. For many he was a sponsor, someone to call in the middle of the night when addiction roared and danger loomed. They said he helped them get sober, that he was the mentor and leader they needed. John's own sons and daughters felt a strange mix of pride and sadness.

On this day as they mourned his death and remembered his life, it seemed that he'd shouldered as best he could this nearness to death: from his early years as a poor German Catholic in rural Minnesota, to the killing fields of the South Pacific, to the triage of hospital beds in Australia, to men drinking themselves to death in the bars and pubs of the 1950s, to a cancer patient, AA sponsor, and grandpa who died too young — but not before he learned to live amid death.

As I prune my own petals in Southern California in 2015, I do so honoring this memory of my Grandpa John. I believe he did this pruning act in an almost unconscious knowledge that to embrace life and live life anew one must prune and confront death: the death of wilted petals, the death of wounded soldiers, of refugees and victims of racism, the innocent victims of careless concern for life, the death of ones we've loved and lost.

His act was a quiet one, a subtle one — but it was nonetheless an act of resistance against a culture that blithely ignores or sublimates the reality of death until it's too late and death crushes us under its weight.

For all of us who would call ourselves Christians and followers of Jesus in 2015, we too cannot continue to ignore the death all around us, wiping aside the wilted petals and wounded hearts — from Maddy Middleton, murdered in Santa Cruz, Calif., to Samuel DuBose, dying of a traffic stop in Cincinnati, to hundreds of children perishing on the open seas and trash-strewn refugee roads, their parents risking it all to give them a chance at real life — and those who never had a chance at all.

It is only when we see the death that we can then seek to prune, to pick, to clear our lives and our world of the wilted petals of the past: of racism and sexism and classism; of hatred and greed — that we will begin to live the lives God has planted for us, blossoming into brilliant colors we could never have imagined.

When it came time to plant flowers again after my Grandpa John's death, I noticed that the sprouts again peeked up out of the once-frozen ground. I watched as my dad carefully unwound the hose and watered them gently, and then days later he and my mom knelt down carefully, slowly, eye level with the purple violets and orange marigolds that had made their way toward the sky. They carefully plucked off the wilted petals, pruning as Grandpa John had done, making way after death for the hope of new life.

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