When I awoke twenty-nine years ago this morning I had no idea that my life would never be the same again. As I've previously written:
On 20 February 1986, my brother and I awoke as usual. We readied ourselves for school and only needed Dad to cook us breakfast before we got on the bus and were off to school. Oddly though, Dad was not up yet. Typically when we awoke, Dad was already in the kitchen listening to the radio and fixing breakfast. This morning, though, he was not. My brother and I thought nothing of this and when we were ready, I went to wake him up. Not finding him in his bedroom, I found him on the couch where he had fallen asleep the night before. I called his name and shook him, but Dad would not wake up. I woke Mom and she, too, tried to rouse him, but to no avail. Out of desperation, we called my Aunt Marie, who arrived shortly thereafter, but she could not wake Dad, either. At long last, we called the ambulance.
When the paramedics arrived, my brother and I were sent outside to wait with the neighbors who had come down. If I remember the morning correctly, it was snowing lightly but was not chilly outside. The wait outside seemed like an eternity.
Finally, one of the paramedics stepped outside. He said not a word, but I can still see the look on his face as he sadly shook his head as though to say, "No, he did not make it; he is dead." The look on his face said it all. As soon as he stepped through the door, I knew, and I cried my heart out. I could do nothing but cry for the next two or three days. I was not quite eight years old.
As I've repeatedly thought back on that fateful day today, two things keep going through my thoughts.
First, I realize now that though I can still see the paramedic's expression, his own face is fading from my memory; whether this is good or not, I do not know, though I suppose it is to be expected with the passage of time. I had, after all, only seen him once.
Second, it has been now almost thirty years since Dad died. Thirty years. It hardly seems possible. The years have marched on, for better or worse, and I have now lived more years without Dad than many men and woman twice my present age will live without one or both of their parents.
To our own estimation, this hardly seems fair, which brings me to one of my favorite scenes from Jim Henson's movie, Labyrinth. Sarah, the principle character, spends much of the movie exclaiming, "That's not fair!" When she complains about this to Jareth, the Goblin King, he says to her, "You say that so often. I wonder what your basis for comparison is."
Several scenes later we find Sarah talking with a wizened old man. After giving her his advice, Sarah is urged to give a donation to him. When she moves to give him something that belongs to the goblin Hoggle (something which she had taken from him), he exclaims, "Them's my rightful property. It's not fair!" To his complaint, Sarah answers, "No, it isn't. But that's the way it is."
Such a thought, especially when put forth as an answer to our frequent complaints of unfairness, may seem callous, dispassionate, and even heartless, but it gets, I think, to the reality of things. My living so many years without my parents is no less fair than parents living so many years without a son or daughter. Or a child developing cancer. Or a spouse living so long without his or her beloved. Or any other number of tragedies. We deem these sorrows unfair because we have somehow bought into the myth that life is meant to be, in the words of Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, "peace, joy, and pancakes." But life after the fall is not to be so; that's simply the way it is.
Reflecting on the vanity of all things, KIng Solomon wrote:
A good name is better than precious ointment;and the day of death, than the day of birth.It is better to go to the house of mourningthan to go to the house of feasting;for this is the end of all men,and the living will lay it to heart.Sorrow is better than laughter,for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad.The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning;but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth (Ecclesiastes 7:1-4).
How can sorrow be better than laughter? The Lord Jesus himself gives us the answer when he says, "Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted" (Matthew 5:5).
Yes, sorrow (whether it be sorrow over personal sin or sorrow over the death of a beloved) brings us before Jesus. When we mourn in faith, we go before the one who also wept over the death of his friend (cf. John 11:36). He knows our sorrow. He knows our grief. He knows our pain. He shows us the wound in his heart (cf. John 19:34) and invites us to enter into it.
Saint Anthony of Padua says that Jesus showed his wounds to the Apostles (cf. John 20:27) so that "the faithful soul might build her nest in his wounds, as in the clefts of the rock" (Sermon for the First Sunday after Easter, 8). This isn't, strictly speaking, fair either, but that's the way it is. He opens the way for us, weak and sinful as we are, to take refuge in him.
What is more, Jesus says us to us: “Come, feel my wounds, for my mercy is tangible. Come, see the wound in my side from where my love flowed out for you, for my mercy is visible. Come, take shelter within my wounds and let my love and mercy wash over you and surround you and give you peace."
Those who enter his heart mourning will be comforted. This is why sorrow is better than laughter, for laughter often seeks to escape pain and sorrow instead of entering into it.
Still, as I wrote last month,
Time has not healed the wound of the death of my mother - nor of the death of my father, the twenty-ninth anniversary of which will be next month - but time has made the wound easier to bear. Grief, at least for those with a melancholic disposition, becomes something of a friend in which the walking wounded can find comfort; if there was no love, there would be no grief. As Saint Bonaventure wrote, "Nothing is lost with great sorrow that is not possessed with great love."
Yes, there is still grief in my heart - and will be until the Lord, the first Walking Wounded, at last calls me to himself - and often I find myself in the house of mourning. In this, I am not alone. It is a good place to be for, as Solomon says, "by sadness of countenance the heart is made glade." It is made glad both by the sorrow born of love and by the sorrow comforted by Love.
Please, in the charity of your prayers, remember my father this day, and remember me, as well.