Today in my inveterate Facebook scrolling, I came across an interview with Maurice Sendak, by NPR’s Terry Gross. It was his last such interview. He had this unique marriage of sadness at the loss that death inevitably brings to the living, with a seeming lack of fear of it for himself. He was an atheist who did not believe in an afterlife, yet felt sure that he would see his brother who preceded him in death. I appreciate and respect the dichotomy. We are not all a smooth system of beliefs. It also made me think of my own experience.
When I was four years old, my mother sat me on her lap to tell her that one of her older brothers, my Uncle Billy, had died. I cried, asked questions, and my mom helped me as best she could. It was some good parenting on my mom’s part. Uncle Billy, only in his early 40’s, was the life of the party, and a hard working, loving father and husband. My little soul didn’t understand why this would happen, and couldn’t begin to comprehend the grief that I would witness in the coming days. The hushed sadness that attends the wake of a life taken too soon. The gut level weeping of my beautiful Aunt Peggy that screamed out in rage against her brother’s death. Little did I know that my family knew death already, in ways that I still struggle to wrap my head around.
In the early 1960’s, my Mom’s two younger brothers, Tommy and Barney, were working together on the Hoboken Police Force. In a traffic stop that turned into an attempt to apprehend a car thief and recover a stolen vehicle, Tommy fired his weapon to try and disable the vehicle, but instead accidentally struck Barney in the head as he dove out of the way of the oncoming car. Barney died. Tommy was never the same – how could he be? Death came too soon.
I grew up only knowing one grandparent, as my mother’s mother had died while I was in utero, my father’s mother in the late 1940’s, and my father’s father while I was a baby, struck by a hit and run driver. None of them made it past their late 60’s. My mother’s father, the one living grandparent I knew, died when I was nine. Death came too soon.
One year and three months after my Grandpa’s death, the news came that my own father had been killed in an accident at work. He was a month shy of his 53rd birthday. To say that my relationship with him was difficult would be a serious understatement, yet the sense of loss and life change to a ten year old was profound. The smells and sounds of that day are forever burned in my memory, along with the absolute gaping sense that death came too soon. It was uninvited.
As the youngest of ten children, many in my extended family were quite old – great aunts and uncles, distant cousins, their near circle of friends. When they died — their deaths seemed to occur in rapid fashion — most had lived full lives, and the pain of loss was different. Present, yes, though somehow muted, like sad music played softly in an adjoining room. Death seemed in those cases somewhat more well mannered. Then came Cheryl.
I was a young teenager when I learned that my friend Cheryl and her boyfriend, Bob, were killed in a car accident. An elderly gentleman had become disoriented, gotten on a major highway heading against traffic, and struck Cheryl and Bob head on. Cheryl was not my best friend, but was she was a light. She filled a room with her joy, as if she had been given an extra serving of whatever it is that makes us human. Death was so rude, so selfish, so callous – it invited itself to a party that should have gone on for sixty or seventy more years.
Somehow, that blow was like a hammer to a stake in my living heart, deadening it, while at the same time making me more keenly aware of the life that remained. I sat in the dust of a philosophical crossroads for many years after that, allowing death to shape me. And shape me, it did, though not in the usual way.
In my late teens, I re-heard the story of Jesus. He was a good and beautiful human, whose only crime was showing others clearly what death had wrought for millenia. He invited people to Cheryl’s party, a vibrant and vivacious romp through life which, though spotted with pain and suffering, was to be spent in community, where no one needed to be left alone to contemplate their mortality. Jesus’ reward for his transforming life was death. He angered the death eaters of his day, the soul-sucking dementors who sapped life from others to pad their own. They had death on speed dial, and Jesus made their fingers itchy.
Now, I am a man of Christian faith, though I live and believe it imperfectly. Unlike Jesus, I have invited proverbial death into the lives of those near me at times, over which I mourn. Yet, it is the perspective of Jesus that has instructed me best. I’ve come to see that death brings life. He saw his own death as a door that would lead to the healing of the world. The kingdom in which many of us inherently hope, would rush in, that death would be sent home with a copy of Emily Post, and the ache of unfulfilled longings salved.
It would be better if Cheryl never died. If my loving and doting aunts and uncles were still here, life would be fuller and richer. My grandpa was so special – he should still be with us. Even my unhappy, angry dad, it would have been better for him not to have died. Uncle Barney and Uncle Tommy should still be here (Tommy died at 48). Uncle Billy? No question. His wife and five children would have been so much better off had he remained. Even Maurice Sendak – our lives would have so much more whimsey in them if he were still writing. But, in the end, I would never have written this had he not passed. And if writing this helps one person see death differently, following the model of Jesus, a new door has been opened because of it.