A Room Called Remember
On grieving the death of a spiritual giant—St. Freddy of Rupert—and the solace of a magical Redwood forest of someday-giants that shouldn't be but is.
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don't be afraid.”
As I rounded a bend in the dusty, arid trail late Monday afternoon, feeling the full force of a relentless August sun bearing down on me even through my allegedly-SPF-blocking felt hat, the improbability—perhaps, even, impossibility—of the destination I sought made me chuckle.
A moment later, an unmistakable scent broke through the stodgy heat, signaling that my quest was no fool’s errand: Evergreen.
Sequoia sempervirens, to be precise, a grove of 241 Coastal Redwoods that have survived, against all odds, for half a century on three acres of suburban park land in Southern California’s Orange County, thirty miles from the nearest coast and several hundred miles south of their native Northern California.
The unlikely Redwood forest began as a promotional gimmick—in 1970, a local bank gave away sequoia seedlings to new customers. When the promotion ended, the bank donated leftover seedlings to the county. A few years later, to mark the opening of the Carbon Canyon Regional Park, rangers planted the seedlings, some of which today stand more than 100 feet tall. They’re mere babes compared to their ancient, more northerly cousins, some of which are more than 2,000 years old and 350 feet tall—the tallest trees on Earth.
Earlier Monday, when news of Frederick Buechner’s death reached me while I was still under the duvet, I sat in bed for a while and wept, bereft for the great man’s departure from this side of the veil. The world felt instantly and infinitely more fraught without his steady, gracious, wise, and courageous presence in it.
Cathleen Falsani: This Numinous World is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I sent a few emails, made a few posts on social media, and then just sat with my grief. Feeling the full weight of it. It was heavy, almost unbearably so.
Monday would have been my father Mario “Muzzy” Falsani’s 92nd birthday. In November, it will be 10 years since Daddy died. I’ve always felt Fred and Muzz were cut from a similar swath. Warm-hearted and dry-witted, forthright and kind, both had heavy-lidded, light-colored eyes (Daddy’s were hazel green, Fred’s soft ocean blue) that gave their faces a similar tenderness. Muzz was from Milford, New Hampshire, about 50 miles east of where Fred lived when he was chaplain at Exeter, and about 100 miles west of Rupert, Vermont, where Fred spent much of the second half of his life and where, on August 15, he died at home at the age of 96.
Fred and Muzz were Yankees. Reserved, whip-smart, honest, funny, and each in their way, faithful, if somewhat begrudgingly so, believers in a God of grace.
Growing up in New England, by mid-August each year our family was vacationing somewhere north of our home in Southern Connecticut—camping on the Outer Cape, in Maine’s Acadia National Park, or a New Hampshire pine barren closer to Grammy Falsani’s place in Milford. It was invariably the hottest time of the year, but Daddy always managed to find a shady spot where we pitched the trusty green canvas tent he and Mom received as a wedding present in 1963, and, as he would say, “cooled our jets” for a week or so, celebrating his birthday with roasted marshmallows and watermelon by kerosene lamplight.
On Monday, my grief for Fred and for Muzz swirled together like soft-serve ice cream. At once distinct and indistinguishable, ribbons of memory, immense love, and aching loss converged in a single anguished whirl. I yearned to go for a walk in a New England wood, to be held in the shade of trees vastly older and greater than I am, inhaling the loamy coolness and stillness of a summer forest somewhere in the familiar north of my youth. Unfortunately, woods and forests are nearly impossible to come by in Southern California. I’ve Googled “where is the nearest woods to me?” and “how far is it to the closest forest?” countless times over the last few locked-down years. The most reliable answer is at least a few hundred miles north.
Still, on Monday I Googled again, broken-hearted and hopeful. Perhaps I’d overlooked something in my earlier slightly-desperate pandemic-era searches. Somehow, as it turns, I had. In Brea, a suburb about an hour’s drive from our house (and about 12 miles northeast of Disneyland, go figure) there exists a tiny, magical forest. #TBTG.
I laced up my hiking boots, slathered on sunscreen, grabbed a couple bottles of water and my hat, and jumped in the car, stopping briefly to download the audio version of Fred’s 2017 collection of essays on death and grief, A Crazy, Holy Grace: The Healing Power of Pain and Memory before I pulled out of the driveway. Even though the book is narrated by someone other than the author himself, to hear Fred’s words spoken aloud, his sometimes excruciatingly honest accounts of pain and suffering, and of what he describes elsewhere as “the passionate restraint and hush of God” in such times, comforted and also broke my heart. Because what he says is true.
There is so much we do not know about the Holy and hidden parts of our lives. What we can say with any measure of certainty about God and life and what may or may not happen after this life ends is almost nothing. And yet, we sense that there is a sense to it—a plot, a story unfolding, one that follows the breadcrumbs of how we got from where we were to where we are now. Those stories, what we allow ourselves to remember of the joy and the pain of them, is perhaps the most crucial thing. To remember them. To tell them. To be honest about them. To ask the questions about what we don’t understand. To not be afraid of not having the answers.
In his essay “A Room Called Remember,” which is included in A Crazy, Holy Grace and elsewhere, Fred turns to King David of Hebrew scriptures, as deeply flawed and deeply loved-by-God a human as there ever has been. Fred writes:
"Remember the wonderful works that he has done,"
goes David's song—remember what he has done in the
lives of each of us, and beyond that remember what he has
done in the life of the world; remember above all what he
has done in Christ-remember those moments in our own
lives when with only the dullest understanding but with
the sharpest longing we have glimpsed that Christ' s kind
of life is the only life that matters and that all other kinds
of life are riddled with death; remember those moments
in our lives when Christ came to us in countless disguises
through people who one way or another strengthened us,
comforted us, healed us, judged us, by the power of Christ
alive within them. All that is the past. All that is what there
is to remember. And because that is the past, because we
remember, we have this high and holy hope: that what he
has done, he will continue to do, that what he has begun
in us and our world, he will in unimaginable ways bring
to fullness and fruition.
"Let the sea roar, and all that fills it, let the field exult
and everything in it! Then shall the trees of the wood sing
for joy," says David. And shall is the verb of hope. Then
death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning
or crying. Then shall my eyes behold him and not as a
stranger. Then his kingdom shall come at last and his will
shall be done in us and through us and for us. Then the
trees of the wood shall sing for joy as already they sing a
little even now sometimes when the wind is in them and
as underneath their singing our own hearts too already
sing a little sometimes at this holy hope we have.
The past and the future. Memory and expectation.
Remember and hope. Remember and wait. Wait for him
whose face we all of us know because somewhere in the
past we have faintly seen it, whose life we all of us thirst
for because somewhere in the past we have seen it lived,
have maybe even had moments of living it ourselves. Re-
member him who himself remembers us as he promised
to remember the thief who died beside hirn. To have faith
is to remember and wait, and to wait in hope is to have
what we hope for already begin to come true in us through
our hoping. Praise him.
—A Room Called Remember, 1984
For much of my life, I was terrified of losing my father. I loved him more than any thing or anyone in the world. The thought that he would someday not be in the world and my life was unthinkable. When I wasn’t gripped by the terror of his some-day death, I would actively banish the thought from my mind and heart, clench both tight until the terrible thought passed. Like my father, I couldn’t imagine Fred not existing in this world, either. Six years ago, when I was invited to record a greeting for the great man’s 90th birthday, I recall doing it again—clenching my fists and squeezing my eyes shut tight until visions of the moment where I learned Fred had died disappeared from my mind. I knew Fred’s demise would happen one day, but I literally could not fathom it.
When a text message that read “Fred Buechner 96 ❤️❤️🔥🙏🏽” from my soul friend, the Anglican priest I call Father Kenny Wayne, arrived Monday morning, I knew the great man was gone. The moment I’d dreaded had arrived. The news immediately put a lump in my throat and brought hot tears to my eyes, signs, Fred might have said, that the Holy had drawn nigh to me. I had no choice but to fathom. The next choice was what to do with the tsunami of grief and pain that followed.
“It’s hard to share not just the shallows of your life, which is what we’re all so good a doing, but to speak out of the depths of your life—the depths are scary,” Fred wrote in the essay “The Gates of Pain.” “To go down into the depths of your past, to go down into the depths of your secrets, to go down into the depths of your pain is a scary business, as anybody who’s been through psychoanalysis can tell you.
“You can never be sure you’re going to find a pearl in the depths; you find monsters in the depths. But it seems to me that what you do find in the depths is yourself and each other, and even God is present, there in the depths and in the heights,” he wrote.
In those first moments after learning Fred had left us, just as in the haze of sorrow that followed an early morning phone call in 2012 from my mother telling me “Daddy has gone home to Jesus,” God and others, and God in others, were present.
With beloveds present and at a great distant for whom Fred also was an ancient Redwood or Polaris—ever present, somehow holding the fabric of the universe and life as we know it together, pointing the way true north so we can orient our wanderings, helping us to breathe and find relief in the shade of his expansive is-ness—we began to mourn together, telling stories.
Fred’s stories. Our stories. Fred’s stories that have become our story. The story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all…
For too many years, I have struggled to write about the Herculean endeavor it has been for me, at times, to keep on living in my father’s absence; to feel the grief that is nonlinear and as unpredictable as it is overwhelming when it comes, without letting it suffocate me. On many occasions over the last decade since Muzz crossed over to the More, Fred’s words and example—to say what we feel not just what we think we ought to say about the most difficult things—have been a great solace and inspiration, even though I’ve largely been unable to write what I feel in the way I know I must. I’ve been afraid—of telling difficult truths, of alienating readers who might not want to hear them, of not describing the horrible in beautiful-enough prose, of doing it wrong, of missing the mark, of being a self-indulgent bore.
Gratefully, I hear Fred’s voice even now, though, telling me otherwise.
For the reader, I suppose, it is like looking through someone else's photograph album. What holds you, if nothing else, is the possibility that somewhere among all those shots of people you never knew and places you never saw, you may come across something or someone you recognize.
In fact— for more curious things have happened— even in a stranger's album, there is always the possibility that as the pages flip by, on one of them you may even catch a glimpse of yourself. Even if both of those fail, there is still a third possibility which is perhaps the happiest of them all, and that is that once I have put away my album for good, you may in the privacy of the heart take out the album of your own life and search it for the people and places you have loved and learned from yourself, and for those moments in the past — many of them half forgotten—through which you glimpsed, however dimly and fleetingly, the sacredness of your own journey.
—from The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (1991) and Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner (1992)
I believe the first Buechner book I read was Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale. If memory serves, it was part of the curriculum of a theater class I was taking with the campus theater guru, Jimma Young, who was both a fan and friend of Fred’s. But the first Buechner book I read on my own and that spoke to me deeply was his The Alphabet of Grace, published in 1970, the same year I was born and those Redwood seedlings first took root in Brea.
In it, Fred did something that I had not thought possible for an ordained minister or nonfiction author writing about his life (spiritual and otherwise) to do: He told the truth. Unvarnished. Unapologetically. About himself, God (or at least his experience thereof), religion in general, Christendom in particular, and our troubled, beautiful, awful, astonishing world.
Fred was honest in a way I hadn’t encountered elsewhere among my co-religionists at that point. About faith, doubt, and hope. Love, loss, suffering, and anguish. Our grumbling, fumbling, and lurching through life, whispering and wishing in the dark. Above all else, what strikes me most poignantly about Fred’s writing as much now as when I first encountered it nearly 35 years ago, is his willing he was to admit, happily, what he didn’t know—what he was unsure of, what no one (if they were genuinely telling the truth) could possibly know definitively—the mystery, the great, terrifying, joy-filled, hilarious ineffability of this life and whatever may come after it.
l am a part-time novelist who happens
also to be a part-time Christian because
part of the time seems to be the most I
can manage to live out my faith: Christian
part of the time when certain things seem
real and important to me and the rest of
the time not Christian in any sense that I
can believe matters much to Christ or
anybody else. Any Christian who is not a
hero, Leon Bloy wrote, is a pig, which is a
harder way of saying the same thing. From
time to time I find a kind of heroism
momentarily possible—a seeing, doing,
telling of Christly truth—but most of the
time I am indistinguishable from the rest
of the herd that jostles and snuffles at the
great trough of life. Part-time novelist,
That is who I am. Who you are I do not
know, and yet perhaps I know something.
I know that like me you wake up each
morning to a day that you must somehow
live, to a self that you must somehow be,
and to a mystery that you cannot fathom if
only the mystery of your own life. Thus,
strangers though we are, at a certain level
there is nothing about either of us that can
be entirely irrelevant to the other. Think
of these pages as graffiti maybe, and where
I have scratched up in a public place my
longing and loves, my grievances and
indecencies, be reminded in private of your
own. In that way, at least, we can hold a
kind of converse. And there is always some
comfort in knowing that Kilroy also was
—The Alphabet of Grace, 1970
My father, a high school teacher for more than half a century, was a doodler. He doodled while talking on the phone. He doodled while his math students took quizzes in class. He doodled in church and the Bible studies he attended out of genuine curiosity and to keep the peace with my spiritually overbearing mother who insisted upon it. He doodled on shopping lists and on birthday cards. One of his favorite doodles was a hybrid of Kilroy, with his big Jimmy Cagney-esque nose peeking over the top of a wall, and one of Herb Gardner’s The Nebbishes cartoon characters, with a pom-pom-topped stocking hat and, sometimes, heavy black spectacles not unlike the ones my father wore in the 1960s. On my nightstand I have a glass paperweight that belonged to my father containing a pen-and-ink rendering of Mr. Nebbish sitting at a desk, hands folded, with the words “I’m so smart I make myself sick” written underneath.
There is indeed always some comfort in knowing that the Daddy and Fred and the Nebbish or Kilroy himself were, and in some mysterious ways we can’t quite fathom, still are here.
Yesterday, as I trying to write this piece, I re-watched Buechner, a 2004 documentary shot in Fred’s Florida home on the day the United States started bombing Iraq in March 2003. The 55-minute film consists of Fred, tanned and relaxed in a navy blue polo shirt, khaki shorts, and top siders, graciously but forthrightly answering questions from the young filmmakers, Rob and Molly Collins. It’s precious, precious footage. If you haven’t seen it, I urge you to do so. You can find it streaming on Amazon Prime HERE.
In it, Fred fields various theological and philosophical questions about faith and prayer, death and grief, joy and laughter, the presence of the divine and the hope that resides inside the mystery of it all.
When the Buecher documentary was made, Fred was 77, five years older than my precious husband is now. Please God, may I have another 25 or 30 or more years with my best friend and most beloved companion whose presence is as integral to my existence as air and water. In recent years, surely given the general mishegoss of the world as well as the stage of life I’ve reached now, when more and more friends, elders, and giants among us are departing, that familiar soul-clenching panic has returned about the terrible day—some day, far, far off—when the unfathomable will happen, again, and he will no longer be here with me. Tears well and my breath catches in my throat even typing these words.
I do not want to imagine it. I cannot bear it.
As I made my way to a bench at the very center of the Brea Redwood grove as Monday afternoon turned toward evening, I tried to keep such thoughts at bay, but their wild power was uncontainable. Catastrophizing fears about the future co-mingled with fresh grief for Fred’s absence, grief for my father and so many others who have taken their seats among the Great Cloud of Witnesses, and came out in heaving, shoulder-shaking sobs. I haven’t wept like that in … it’s been many years. Since the first time I returned to the Connecticut cemetery where my father’s ashes are buried a year or so after his death. I knelt on the frozen ground and wailed. It was a catharsis then just as it was on Monday, alone in a cathedral of adolescent sequoias.
The Brea Redwoods and I are the same age. We’re still here (cue Elaine Stritch belting out her signature Sondheim number), even if so many others are not.
As I collected myself in the shade of the Redwoods and let them hold me a few moments longer before hiking back to my car through the late-summer heat, a story Fred tells in A Crazy, Holy Grace about the last conversation he had with his only sibling, younger brother Jamie, before his death in from cancer in 1998.
“I said I had a feeling we had not seen the last of each other,” Fred wrote, “and he made a soft, descending ‘Ah-h-h’ sound as a way to thank me for saying it, for maybe even believing it.”
Later in the same essay, “The Struggle of Memory,” Fred recalls a conversation he had with his grandson, Dylan, then only four years old, reading together in a hammock strung among 60-foot maple trees presumably at his home in Vermont. “Someday he would be an angel himself, he said, and I said that would not be for a very, very long time,” Fred wrote of young Dylan. “I would get to be an angel long before he did, if I got to be one at all, I told him, but I would wait for him, and then he said, ‘When I get there, I will follow you wherever you go.’ ‘Ah-h-h,’ I said.”
Fifteen years ago this week, I was in the throes of writing my second book and first memoir, a collection of autobiographical stories called Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace. That book, which remains my favorite to date, opens with the Buechner quote that is etched on my heart and that I come back to almost daily, in good times and bad times and meh times, too.
Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden part of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.
—Now and Then (1983)
Cathleen Falsani: This Numinous World is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.