Somewhere in our county there is a massive old limestone bridge over which a railroad company had once run its trains. Today, having found myself in the area and with a bit of time on my hands, I set out to find it. However, all I knew was that it was somewhat southeast of an old ghost town. So I found that said ghost town and took off on a dirt road that led east out of town, turning south on the first intersecting road. Miraculously perhaps, I found it.
Apparently, quite a while ago a local landowner had opened some of his property to the public and constructed a small playground, picnic area, and firepit within sight of the bridge. However, the park is now somewhat dilapidated, as if it’s been forgotten with the passage of time. As I walked around the grounds, I had this eerie feeling, like I was in a post-apocalyptic movie and had just stumbled upon a once-beloved community spot that hadn’t been visited in years, since before the apocalypse.
When was the last time a family came here to have a picnic? How long has it been since children played on that playground? When did that tire swing get taken down, and does anyone miss it? Does anyone still appreciate the work that was put into building this place for the public?
The bridge is impressive. The picture doesn’t do justice to how large the bridge is, how much it looms, how small it made me feel. And yet, even as I marveled, I wondered, When was the last time the bridge had been used for its intended purpose? How long and how many workers did it take to build over a hundred years ago for it to now just sit here as a relic that few people even know about?
As I sat on top of a picnic table, I felt an immense and uncharacteristic sadness, like I was the only person to show up for a friend’s funeral. I assumed this place had once been full of life and purpose, and yet now it felt dead and ominous and empty.
But then I heard the twittering of birdsong and the babbling of a creek. I saw a hundred shades of green as spring brought vitality back to the trees and the grass. And from who knows where, a simple yet powerful phrase floated up into my consciousness: Life perseveres.
Here I was, solemnly acknowledging the death I saw around me, and yet life was springing up everywhere, just as it has every single spring since life first began. Even though winter and darkness and death come every year, still life perseveres.
If you think about it, nearly everything in the world cycles between death and resurrection of some sort, or at least between opposites: night and day, winter and summer, sleeping and waking, sick and well, mountains and valleys, yin and yang, etc. Various philosophies from Taoism to the Jedi Order in Star Wars would consider this the inherent balance of the natural world, but I believe it’s the perseverance of life against death.
Death doesn’t require the presence of something as its source of existence, because death is merely the absence of life. Likewise, darkness exists naturally in the absence of anything that would preclude its existence, whereas light requires a source in order to push back the darkness.
This means that life takes work to create and sustain, but death does not (although some of us work at it anyway). If the conditions for life are not met rigorously and consistently, then life flees and death simply fills the void left behind. It’s exhausting. Yet thankfully, against all logic, life perseveres anyway.
And what’s more, the universe has given life a keen advantage in this: even death itself leads to life. A flower may die, yet when it’s tossed in the compost pile, it decomposes (or, perhaps, is reborn) into a life-giving element. A clever trick indeed.
Because life naturally perseveres, death only wins if we let it. If all we see is a dead flower and throw it in the trash instead of the compost, death wins. If all I see is the old, abandoned playground equipment and the now-purposeless railroad bridge, death wins. To combat death, then, we must learn to see the perseverance of life, the rebirth from the death, the light that shines in the darkness and is not overcome. And when we cannot see (for there will certainly be those times), we must trust and persevere ourselves.
This all reminds me of a line in Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that haunts me: Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah. If that line doesn’t sum up what it’s like to be a foster/adoptive parent, I don’t know what will.
My experience of parenting a teenager adopted from foster care has been nowhere close to a victory march. If anything, it’s been a death march. The death of my expectations for my family. The death of my feeling of safety. The death of the “tough guy” mask I used to wear so proudly. The death of my faith.
And still, there’s a “hallelujah” somewhere in me. It may be cold and broken, and it may sound more like, “whatever, hallelujah, I guess” but it’s there nonetheless. That’s life persevering in me. That’s the seed of rebirth. That’s hope. That’s revolt against death.
Wherever you are, I hope you can see signs of life’s perseverance. Perhaps for you, it isn’t hard to see. If that’s true, then genuinely I am glad for you, and I hope you express your gratitude for it.
But if you’re not there, if you feel like you’re surrounded by death, that’s okay. If life is a cycle of death and resurrection, then let that feeling of death bring you comfort in that you’re still on the right path. Look for the seeds of rebirth around you, and if you can’t see them, trust that they’re coming. Life perseveres, after all. Take hold of that and cry out your cold and broken hallelujah. Love is not a victory march, but at least you can know you’re not alone. I’m right there with you, and I believe we’ll make it.