Joanna M. Shea

For me, that January day in 1999 ended as it had begun, pushing my way through crowds to the subway platform and onto the Metro car, closing my eyes, waiting for my stop. As I ascended the escalator into the winter twilight of Washington’s Dupont Circle, I set eyes on a “Missing” flyer tacked to a telephone pole. It pictured a strikingly pretty Asian woman with alert eyes and long dark hair. Even in this still frame, I could sense her vitality, as if she had spun around to face the camera, saying with mock impatience, “What now? Another picture?”

The flyer listed the bare facts: name (Joyce Chiang), height, weight, the clothes she was wearing and the details of her activities on the night of Jan. 9. She had dined with friends in Adams Morgan and was last seen at the Starbucks on R Street, a few blocks from her home near Dupont Circle. But something went wrong, because in the 8 o’clock hour of a quiet Saturday, Joyce Chiang slipped into the glassy black of night, without a trace.

On that Wednesday evening, four days after she was last seen, I hastened home, wondering if my housemate, Sarah, had heard anything. As soon as I opened the front door, Sarah rushed to the foyer. “Joanna, that woman, the missing woman—have you heard? She lives on our block, right here on Church Street.”

We had been living on our uncommonly quiet one-way street, graced by an old stone church and a gated garden, since summer. In the heart of Dupont Circle, its sidewalks, lined with oak trees and colorfully painted row houses, served as a small refuge from city life. Joyce Chiang’s disappearance shattered that serenity. That next morning, Sarah and I left the house together. We didn’t have to speak of it—both of us were looking for signs of Joyce and wondering which house was hers. Flyers were taped to each lamppost. Overnight, Church Street had been transformed by parallel rows of a fluttering white paper trail that sang missing, missing, missing. But still, there was no sign of the woman.

On Sunday, I went to St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and after Mass I knelt in the side chapel and lit a candle for my father. He had died of cancer six years before, and though I was no longer that disconsolate and irreligious 17-year-old, midwinter revived memories of the precarious weeks surrounding his death. Lighting a candle in that chapel, I felt as if he were by my side.

The cathedral was now nearly empty, and as I left I noticed an older woman with thin black hair, graying at the temples, approaching the monsignor. Her build was sturdy, yet her voice was delicate, her words muted. I could hear her introducing herself as Mrs. Chiang, Joyce’s mother. She mentioned that Joyce was a parishioner at St. Matthew’s and wondered if he knew her. Then she asked him to pray for her daughter.

As Mrs. Chiang turned away, moving slowly toward the massive doors at the back of the church, my heart sank. Although I had spent days speculating about Joyce Chiang, I hadn’t really prayed for her and hadn’t considered her family’s torment.

On my walk home, I heard echoed my own mother’s words: that the worst thing, oh the worst, was to bury your own child. My mother told me how years before, she had stood in the hospital nursery gazing at her newborn as his tiny limbs lost their color, their warmth, until finally a doctor came and advised her to return to her room. My mother was not one to dwell on sorrow, but even my uncles talked about how crushing that loss had been. A few weeks later, they came to visit and took her out one evening to a restaurant famous for its spectacular view of Washington. From the rooftop, my mother looked out to the Jefferson Memorial, the Reflecting Pool, the gleaming dome of the Capitol Building, and then, across the Potomac, to the expansive Arlington Cemetery—to the grave of her infant son.

But that was all I knew of her grief. I wondered, did my mother’s faith, so firmly grounded, carry her through all of this? Or did she just take the sorrows, the losses and disappointments, and bury them low, so low that no one else could get at them? Even the night my father died, I sensed about her a calm so profound it unnerved me. Had she known all along that he would die? I alternated between respecting her steadfast faith and doubting it.

When I was 16, my father was diagnosed with cancer. The uncertainties of adolescence and the seriousness of his condition seemed to collide, shaking my faith. I ceased praying. When he died later that year, it was as if my dismissal of faith had been preordained. Well-meaning adults told me that “time heals” and “memories last forever.” I wanted to silence them all, these betrayers of the dead, those who wanted to forget, or move on or merely be content with memories. I simply wanted my father back, not in heaven, not with God, not in remembering. Of one thing I was certain: too much hope was foolish.

Now, on Church Street, I witnessed again a vigil of hope against death. In a first-floor apartment of a brick row house, a thick, white candle stood burning in the foyer, just beyond the glass door. During the investigation, Mrs. Chiang, a widow, stayed in the apartment that Joyce shared with her brother, Roger—who had placed a flickering candle in the window. He had announced on the local news that he would hold a candlelight vigil for his sister every Saturday night at Dupont Circle until she was found.

“We’re still hopeful that she’s alive and out there and will return home safely,” he told The Washington Post on Feb. 10. The days since her disappearance had become weeks.

And then a couple walking in Anacostia Park found Joyce Chiang’s government I.D. A few weeks later, the police found her green suede jacket, a Blockbuster video card and keys just south of Anacostia Park. Still, the candle remained lit.

On the third Thursday of every month, I served as lector at the 8 a.m. Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. I rose early on those days to prepare. The light of a late winter dawn fell across my desk as I reviewed that morning’s Old Testament reading. Then I hurried out the door and down the block. Church Street was as still and composed as a painting, so far removed from the hustle of the Washington political scene. I walked quickly, quietly reciting the Lord’s Prayer to ready my voice for reading. A delicate wind rustled the solitude as I spoke, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” And then I saw her.

Mrs. Chiang, bundled up in a brown parka, stooped over, sweeping the front steps that led to the apartment. “On earth as it is in heaven,” I continued. Weeks had now passed since any news of Joyce; the posters had long since come undone and were scattered.

What made it so that Mrs. Chiang could even rise and do these chores—sweeping steps, taking care of the mundane—while she waited for news that could break her heart, break her will to go on? What lay between life and death was an interminable waiting—did she then choose to infuse that waiting, that grim uncertainty, with hope? Watching Mrs. Chiang wait, I wondered how she, or any mother, could invest in hope, or God, without losing faith completely. I pulled my scarf up around my face and kept my head down as I walked by. I felt so small in the face of this woman’s unspoken courage.

On April 1, a canoeist on the Potomac River discovered a body on a rocky stretch of shore. Within two weeks, the body was identified as that of Joyce Chiang. Mrs. Chiang and the family held a memorial service and brought Joyce’s body home to be buried next to her father’s in Los Angeles. In an interview published on May 1 in The Washington Post, Mrs. Chiang said, “I want to know what happened, but my daughter was a very loving person, and I know she would forgive who did this to her.” She added, “I want to forgive, too.” With that, Mrs. Chiang returned to Los Angeles, leaving Church Street and a cruel Washington winter behind.

I cannot know the course of Mrs. Chiang’s private grief. I was struck by the magnitude of her faith, because I knew that behind that quiet courage lay Mary’s weeping at the foot of the cross. And it is thus that I found Mrs. Chiang, not cursing this world and her God, but turning to him, a heart full of sorrow, yet with room enough to forgive.

It was this simple act—an act of grace—that finally undid me, unloosing the heartbreak of my adolescence. While I had sought vainly after a happy ending, I had no hope. I remember asking my mother if she knew that my father was going to die that night at the hospital, and she answered quietly, “I don’t know, Joanna, maybe. We prayed together that afternoon, and I’m grateful for that.” She said it with such conviction and so serenely that I knew not to ask her more.

And so all along, it was right in front of me—my own mother, and all that I knew of Mary—the countless times I had uttered those very words, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” But it took still another, a grieving mother poised outside on Church Street, to show me.

Joanna M. Shea is a graduate student at Columbia University in the nonfiction writing program of the School of the Arts.

Comments

J. Brown | 7/16/2008 - 7:00pm
**You have a very real gift for writing. You drew me in and kept me. You made me weep. For Mrs. Chiang and for you.
(Rev.) Walter J. Paulits | 1/31/2007 - 10:37am
In the issue of Dec. 9, 2002, you have two articles about experiences of the presence of God: “The Religious Dimension of Life,” by Randall S. Rosenberg, and “Waiting on Church Street,” by Joanna M. Shea. Mr. Rosenberg speaks of the epiphanies (my word) of high-school students awed at the manifestation of the ineffable mystery of incomprehensibility whom we call God. Ms. Shea speaks of a slower process of meeting the incomprehensible. Her story describes the heroism of people struggling with the deaths of beloved relatives. Karl Rahner would have appreciated both articles. But perhaps he would have seen more universal relevance in Ms. Shea’s stories.

Rahner insisted that we Christian moderns had to see the secular as always infused with grace, which simply is God’s involvement with us every minute. He wrote, “If we want to get rid of the impression of a secular world, then we have to stop looking for him, under explicitly religious labels.” We should look for him in the “colorless daily round, in the thankless performance of our duty.” There we meet the cross of Christ, which deals death but also generates eternal life. As Rahner said, Christ’s cross is “always present in the mute presence of death throughout our life.” Our life is a series of opportunities: to die to ourselves or to aggrandize ourselves. If we opt for unselfishness, the dying to self is potentially endless. But in it God is present, silent but loving us into life. The kind of epiphany happening here is slow, almost unfelt, universal and unceasing. And we are not always faithful; but God is mercy. And in our attempts to be people of agape, the presence of God becomes a deep-seated, unconquerable confidence that in the ultimate mystery of God all good is found. Not a spectacular epiphany but one as accessible as the next time we’re asked to die to our selfishness, and one each of us can experience. It is universal, because life and death are common to us all.

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