There was nothing particularly unusual or newsworthy about my father-in-law’s death at age 84. Even so, it was unsettling, given that until his diagnosis of stage four cancer on March 1, he had been living alone in his home and was seemingly healthy—and that despite his doctor’s prognosis of having several months to live, he died after only three more weeks.
After 9/11, a New Yorker might take comfort in the thought, “The terrorists will now pick some other city.” But like San Francisco, New York remains a handy port city for smugglers of nuclear bombs. It’s said that al-Qaeda has been working on the idea for ten years. If you were a terrorist, would not that weapon appeal to you as the way to trump 9/11?
It is said that death waits for no one and makes no appointments. That was the case for the 1,000 people killed by Hurricane Katrina, the 70,000 dead in the Pakistan earthquake, and the 181,000 lives claimed by the Asian tsunami that hit in late 2004, overshadowing the dawn of 2005.
"The walking dead.” These are the words of African-American soldier Leon Bass as he described the horror he saw when Americans liberated prisoners in the Buchenwald prison camp in April 1945. Today some call confirmed drug addicts “the walking dead.” Then there’s the book/film Dead Man Walking—which describes many of us spiritually.
The holidays are here, with their intricate blessings and woes. There are presents to buy, visits to plan, cards to send and meals to prepare, at least for those who are so inclined. Those who are not may spend as much time resisting the blandishments of the season as others spend giving in to them, but either way few escape the Holiday Time Machine.
Like David Fisher in the award-winning HBO series Six Feet Under, when my father died, I embalmed him. My brother Pat assisted. We dressed him, put him in a box and soon thereafter buried him. Tim did the obits and drove the hearse. Eddie called the priest and did the printing. Mary handled the florals and finances. Julie organized the luncheon that would follow.
Where does a man turn, how does he live, when his hopes and dreams have failed him (or—perhaps no less commonly—when he has failed them)? Few questions challenge who we are and what we believe more profoundly, as this sober account of how one troubled soul wrestled with these questions shows.
Early on Easter morning, some women from Galilee went to the tomb where they had left Jesus. They came because they had been up all night, as people in grief often are, and because it is somehow easier to grieve at the grave site.
Two months after the memorial service they found Vinnie's body. Silence washed over Ground Zero. Hats were removed, bodies waited reverently as they lifted him from the wreckage and carried him out. Several days later I attended the liturgy. When the congregation sang, "Lord, let at last thine angels come," we knew that once again in these latter days God had spoken to us.
I was in Cuba this summer on a mission trip, when our host pastor, Héctor Méndez, approached me, his face grave and drawn. “They have attacked a Presbyterian hospital and school in Pakistan,” he said, “and people have been killed.”