Last week I was walking through the north Raleigh library branch, asking God to point out some helpful reading, when I came upon a book called "Here If You Need Me." The back cover featured favorable reviews, including this one:
Kate Braestrup's "Here if You Need Me" can be read as a superbly crafted memoir of love, loss, grief, hope and the complex subtleties of faith. Or it can be read as the journey of a strong-minded, warmhearted woman through tragedy to grace.
Her story begins a decade ago with a devastating loss. Her husband, Drew, a Maine state trooper who had considered training for the ministry, is killed when his patrol car is hit by a truck. Instead of the traditional approach to a funeral, Kate chooses to wash and dress his body herself and accompany it to cremation, wearing a dress he loved. Then comes the grieving: In the six months after his death, she notes, she and her four young children cried a lot, weeping while vacuuming, while ordering pizza, while coloring, while emptying rainwater from garbage cans. She says when you weep while ordering pizza, you often end up with the wrong toppings.
Eventually she and the children scatter Drew's ashes by the lighthouse in Port Clyde, and she takes his place at the Unitarian seminary in Bangor. "I'm here because Drew isn't," she tells her professor the first day. "I'm his remains." Her skeptical brother responds to the news that she has decided to study for the ministry with an e-mail: "Dear Kate, you don't really believe in God, do you?" She explains that "the God I serve and worship with all my body, all my mind, all my soul, and all my spirit is love (1 John 4:8)."
Her story is deeply personal, yet resonant. And she has a refreshing comic side that keeps popping up: "I highly recommend divinity school for anyone recently bereaved. With rare exceptions, your classmates will be unbelievably nice, sensitive people. They are all eager to practice their pastoral skills . . ."
The meat of the book is Braestrup's description of her work as chaplain to the game wardens who conduct search-and-rescue missions for the state of Maine. And this element of the memoir alone is enough to make it fascinating, as she describes traveling with the wardens in search of murder victims, suicides, straying children and lost hikers. She accompanies the wardens to give comfort to the loved ones of those who are missing, to attend to the remains of those found dead, and to minister to the wardens themselves.
One episode that touched me was the suicide of a young single Mom. Deeply depressed, she overdosed on sleeping pills and walked into the woods to fall asleep forever. Her brother was near the scene when wardens found her body. When he arrived in his truck, the warden said "we're sorry to tell you your sister is dead." The brother just nodded. "And this is Chaplain Braestrup," said the warden. When the brother saw her clerical collar, he broke down. She got in his truck and held him while he sobbed. (Maine wardens have a chaplain because they believe death is more than a secular issue. It has a spiritual dimension.) The brother finally asked Chaplain Braestrup if his sister was still eligible for a church funeral? He said she had gone to church last Sunday and the minister said that suicide is the only sin God NEVER forgives. Would that disqualify her from burial in a church yard? You will enjoy what the Chaplain told him, especially the prayer.
"God is holding your sister close to his tender heart," she said. "She is safe, she is forgiven, and she is free from pain. Why am I so sure? The game wardens have been searching the woods in the cold rain all day, trying to find your sister. They would have searched all day tomorrow and the rest of the week, so they could bring her home to you. And I am sure that God is not less merciful than a Maine game warden. Would you like me to pray with you?" When he said yes, they held hands and she prayed, "Love is my shepherd; I shall not want. Love makes me lie down in green pastures; love leads me beside still waters, love restores my soul...Amen, amen."