One thing I’ve learned over the last several years is that every Easter is memorable, in its own way. Â And this year, it was memorable because it was very personal.
This year, we went further afield and joined various family members for Mass at the gorgeous Santa Clara Mission, right on the campus of Santa Clara University. Â It was my first time back since my sister was married there in 1999. Â I’d forgotten how lovely it is.
As if the church itself weren’t breathtaking enough, the gardens outside were like a glimpse of Eden. Â There were wisteria-hung walkways, camellias, primroses, and rosebushes ready to burst into bloom.
The boys — perhaps because their older, beloved cousins were there, too — were remarkably well-behaved, considering that they were sitting for nearly two hours. And when Mass was over and we all spilled out into the garden, the kids all ran over the lawn gleefully, soaking up the sun.Â We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect, mild day.Â I wandered the pathways and snapped pictures and chatted with my family members and remembered being there at my sister’s wedding, posing in the same garden on a very special occasion. Â You cannot help but feel your spirits lift in such a beautiful setting, on such a sacred day.
And I thought about my good friend Mary. Â It was the first Easter since her death, Â last December. Â I happened to be wearing the same dress that I had worn at her funeral, and I thought about how I’ve only worn the dress twice: once on a day that was all about death, and once on a day that was all about life. Â The symbolism of that seemed so appropriate.
During the Mass, I had found myself remembering the Resurrection story from the Gospel of John, when Mary Magdalene sees the risen Jesus outside the tomb. Â At first she thinks he’s the gardener. Â And then he says her name, and she realizes that it’s Jesus. Â She’s seeing him again. Â And the mere thought of that encounter made tears come to my eyes.
Several weeks ago, I was at church one Sunday when I caught a glimpse of Â a woman in the parking lot. Â For a split second, it looked like my friend Mary … and then it wasn’t. Â And I felt the grief again, like a void in my heart, and I realized that I would give so much — so, so much — to be able to see her again across the church parking lot. Â For that brief split second, I’d been in a world where it seemed that I did see her. Â The realization that it was someone else was almost physically painful.
And yet, though I won’t see her again in this life, I believe — because of Easter — that I’ll see her again someday. Â I believe that I, like Mary Magdalene, will be able to see and speak with and hear a dear friend who died. Â And when you lose someone you love, that’s all you really want, right? — to be with them again, to hug them and hear their voice and feel their presence.Â Nothing else matters.
The last time I saw Mary alive, it was a few weeks before her death. Â The bile duct cancer had whittled her body into a kind of shell; she was thin and frail and literally yellow from the cancer, and she was vomiting and weak, but she still came outside to be with the four friends who had gathered to help get her beloved garden into shape. Â She pulled weeds and clipped plants, even though we tried to get her to sit down and rest. Â It was a day that was terribly sad and very sacred, all at once.
And as we pulled weeds and pruned her roses, Â she talked about heaven. Â She had spoken of it often near the endÂ because she found it hard to envision, on a practical level, what exactly the afterlife would be like.Â Mary was someone who loved life, travel, and adventure, and she confided that she feared she’d be bored in heaven.Â Finding a workable understanding of the afterlife felt very urgent to her as her health declined.
That day, in the garden,Â she told us that she had spoken to our parish priest the week before, when he’d come to the house.Â She had asked him what he thought heaven was like.
“Mary, I honestly don’t know,” our pastor had told her. Â â€œBut I do know this: it has to be way better than we could ever imagine.”
I’m not sure exactly what heaven is like, either.Â But I believe that Mary has found out, and that she’s not bored at all.
And that’s why this Easter was not just personal, but joyful.