Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord, the congregation said, and we filed in waving our fronds. My grandfather sat on the third row, thin skin strafed with liver spots I thought were biblical, blood-of-Christ-like, his hair as thin as his skin. I was between eight and ten then and he was narrowing in on eighty, neither of us with any understanding of heaven or earth or what happens at the end of our days, despite what words were said during the sermons about sacrifice and salvation. This day, Palm Sunday, I had been waiting in the alcove, listening to the call and response of the catechisms, the organ reverberating through the walls, a sound I’m sure I remember thinking was angels, or spirits, something that hovered just beyond sight.
Even under the suspended lights—light in heaven, light in our lives—the church was dark. A narrow Jesus hung above the altar, pierced in five points. The carpet was blood red, thick beneath our small shoes. We knew then that Jesus rode into Jerusalem as the people laid down cloaks and small branches to pave his way into the city, but I’m not sure we knew re-enacting his ride with our palm fronds was a way of easing our own souls into the skies. We listened to the low rumble of prayer, the deep-throated voices of old men reading and women mouthing the words, and maybe we thought of our own journeys, but more likely at that age we only whacked each other with our palm fronds, not yet worried whether our lives were everlasting.
I don’t remember what we did when we reached the front, either. Whether we knelt and prayed, or placed our fronds on the floor beneath the feet of the crucified Christ. I’ve looked up the liturgy, words I’ve lost through the distance of memory, but I’ll leave them alone, except to say that the words we said were for eternal life and the blessing of our fathers. For safe passage into Jerusalem, which is beyond this world.
Who knew then about eternity, or how hard we’d be hit by loss thirty years later? I only remember seeing my grandfather as I went past with my palm frond, his skin so thin by then it split under any scratch, any borne bruise. He was smiling at me, proud in that moment, and I remember thinking of this the morning after he died.
When the phone rang late the night before I didn’t hear it, lost in whatever call and response I re-enact at my computer, trying to breathe words back to life. His heart, my brother told me later, had been gripped by a fierce heat, which made me think of how Jesus’ last words were either of being forsaken or of finality, as if not even a god knows how to go into the afterlife.
I’ve since come to think that the words we recite rarely matter. There will always be room for wishes, ways we will hurt ourselves over the moments we’ve missed. In the awful morning still standing in my thin skin, I thought that instead of writing or recreating the world—whatever it was that kept me from the phone—I should have been speeding through the skies toward Arkansas. Imagine if I had arrived in time: my family all gathered by the bed, laying down branches to soothe his last breaths, hoping to ease his passage through the gates with all the things we never said.