Post-flood, in Genesis 9:11, a rainbow was characterized as symbolizing “the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature upon the earth.”
Frederick Buechner was far better situated than I to take liberties with Noah, the original “old sailor” who was “an expert in hoping against hope,” and wrote that “[i]n one way . . . it gave Noah a nice warm feeling to see the rainbow up there, but in another way it gave him an uneasy twinge.” It occurred to him that God had a lot on his mind, and the very fact of him needing a symbolic such reminder might mean the promise could be forgotten.
Noah forged ahead once the floodwaters receded, but his thoughts of building and of seeding the vineyards were shaded by fear born of intrusive thoughts of the past: “He remembered the animals he’d had to leave behind–“the old sow with her flaxen lashes squealing on top of a hen house as the ripples lapped at her trotters, . . . a marmalade cat with one ragged ear . . . ”
When a dove first returned to the ark once the deluge had stopped, Noah had “reached out over the rail and it had landed on the calluses of his upturned palm. With his eyes closed and tears on his cheeks, he had touched his lips to its feathers, and as he felt the panic of its bird’s heart, it had seemed to him that the whole world was just as fragile and as doomed.”
It took weeks of dove forays, the sight of a “great glittering rainbow arched above him,” and the echo of God’s promise in his ears to persuade Buechner’s Noah that the promise would be kept–that “a new, green world would blossom up out of the sodden wreckage of the old.”
I’m no Noah.
After weeks, months and now years after my husband’s death I still see that fearsome fragility and often sense impending doom. Great swaths of our old life have been wiped away.
We occupy a new home. It is a strange and fraught sensation when we peek into our old life, before those storms, and revisit the same spaces my children and I shared with my husband, as we did last weekend with in-laws whom we would visit nearly every July 4th. We drove in a car I bought myself (for the first time in my adult life) to my sister-in-law’s house and my brother-in-law navigated a boat Jim had never seen through a recently cleared rocky culvert onto the same mountain-surrounded lake in which my husband and children swam only six days after learning of his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer.
Simultaneously I could see far more than a ghost, the outline of my husband’s left shoulder and side profile as he laughed with his youngest sister just before diving into the water, and the far-less-corporeal image of my terrified self from the same day, reflected in my sister-in-law’s window, quietly crying until another sister-in-law gently touched my arm and asked if I wanted to go for a walk with her.
Today the essence and height of my few remaining fears is of revisiting the wreckage and devastation and again occupying the darkness full-time. My fear corresponds with this initial post-flood incarnation of Noah: maybe the worst is yet to come, perhaps I can’t trust the dollops of color and hope that have been sprinkled in our paths.
I’ve taken of late to compiling daily rainbows, often literal “blossom[s] up out of the sodden wreckage” of a devastating winter. Sometimes they make themselves known in bits and pieces–petals and seashells and curls of sparkling seaweed. Every now and then the rainbow arrives fully assembled in a trick of light, a flower bed, or a chirping visitor.
Our new life, however tenuous its parts may be, hands me sudden blooms of sharp color, and has landed me within distance of spectacular rainbows.