The first time I can remember standing in line was at the milk dispenser in the lunchroom at Mattie Lively Elementary School. I didn’t like milk. I was not made to drink it at home. But in the lunchroom at Mattie Lively, there was no other option.
So I stood there and waited my turn, took the metal cup holder from the rack, turned it upside down and pushed it hard on the stack of white paper cones. The cup holder was always cold and it got colder as I lifted the handle on the milk dispenser and watched the stream of white liquid fall in.
Standing in line was a big part of what we did in first grade at Mattie Lively. We all got to be very good at it. I guess that’s the whole point.
I left Mattie Lively 50 years ago and I’m still standing in lines. To place an order, to mail a letter, to buy a ticket. To make a purchase, to board an airplane, to receive a diploma. The line is often long and the movement slow. My companions are frequently people I don’t know. But the end result is that, generally, at the end of the line, I’ve obtained or achieved something I desire. Rarely do I find myself in something like the Mattie Lively milk line, for a reason I don’t like, but for which there is no other option.
Rarely, but not never.
Saturday afternoon was beautiful. The sky was the blue of faded chambray and there was the slightest breeze. It didn’t feel like February. I walked across the parking lot, hearing every step my dress shoes made on the gravel, bracing myself for what was ahead. I entered the building and took my place at the end of the line.
Over the next half hour or so I moved, along with my fellow line-dwellers, slowly, slowly, slowly forward, inching my way toward the moment when I would step in front of the husband and the three sons, each of them standing so ramrod straight that a stranger couldn’t have guessed which one graduated from West Point. When my turn came, I would hug them and murmur something about how sorry I was for their loss, how much we all loved her, how much she loved them.
I hated being in that line. I hated the reason I was there. There was nothing good at the end of it and, yet, there was no other option.
On Sunday morning, still hung over with sadness, I went to church. I sat through Sunday School and the sermon and then, without much conscious thought, there I was standing in yet another line. This time, though, I would be required to say nothing. This time, at the end of this line, all I had to do was receive.
“The body of Christ, broken for you.” He broke off a piece of bread and dropped it into my outstretched hands. “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” She held out the cup and I touched the surface of the dark liquid with the bread. It was a small morsel, but I could taste the salt in the bread and the bitter in the grape juice.
It is a little like tasting tears, this receiving of communion.
And that is when I realized that there had, in fact, been much good at the end of the line the day before. In the sadness and the disbelief, the uncertainty and the fear, there was also communion — the bearing witness to an unfathomable loss, the attesting to memories that will forever defy that loss, and the affirming with every single tear that, in the end, it is what we share and how we share it that define what it means to be loved. What it means to be human. What it means to be alive.