A year or so ago, the father of a friend died. He’d been mowing the lawn and he came in, sat down in his chair and just never got up again. He was in his late 90s. That’s the way to go, my friend remarked.
I’m not so sure. I’ve dealt with a lot of death, and the sudden kind is always harder on those left behind. In my own life, I have accumulated a stunning series of abrupt passings, marked both by their unexpected nature and the fact that somehow, in the days or week preceding, I skipped an appointment that--had I made it--would have been a last visit.
Chalk up another one today.
I'm sorry to tell you that our friend Richard passed away unexpectedly last night from a massive heart attack.
Not exactly the way I wanted to start my morning, with an e-mail like that. Richard, my best buddy from my days as a malpractice defense lawyer. Richard, honorary uncle to my children, the one at whom my daughter looked one afternoon and pronounced (to his great amusement), You can't be a lawyer. You're a boy! Richard, companion on many a family vacation, of great good humor and endless adventure. Richard, the finest lawyer, and one of the best men, I have ever known.
I'd heard, just a little while ago, ago of a failed surgery and widely metastatic cancer, something not destined to end well, but he'd survived the initial intervention, and was preparing for chemotherapy. I'd spoken to him just a few days ago. He was in good spirits, sounding for all the world like his old and congenial self. We'd laughed at the collection of humor books I'd sent, recalling nights around a campfire with some of the stories.
For a man with a diagnosis of cancer, I'm the happiest man in the world! There was a cadre of helpers bringing dinner and companionship every evening. His strength was returning, He was healing better than expected. He was supposed to start chemotherapy next week. My husband had tickets to Florida to see him in less than a week.
And then came the e-mail. I doubled over as if I'd been punched in the gut. I was a tomboy; I know how that feels. Odd, how emotional pain can be so very, very physical.
I'm not ready! I'm not ready! I want to talk to him again. I was going to visit in April! I had books to send, a rosary to make! I'm not ready.....
It's not particularly flattering to realize that my first thought was about me, but there you have it. I sat at my desk and cried for a bit, then excused myself and drove across town to the adoration chapel, where I knelt and prayed and cried again. And dealt with terrible, frightening thoughts, my shoulder devil whispering in my ear between every Hail, Mary, every Our Father, my own heart trying to answer back.
It's a myth. He's just gone. You're a fool.
It's not. Please, Jesus. It's not. It's not. He needs You. I need You.
Some Christian you are. Even this poor man's death, and it's about you.
For his mother, Lord. For his brother. His friends. For him. It's the best I can do.
Even being here is for you. What a showman you are. You should be back at work.....
By the time I had struggled through my prayers, not even sure how I said them, the words mechanical and the beads slipping unmarked through my fingers, my tears had, for the moment, stopped, and my shoulder devil was temporarily quieted. I slipped out the back door, to make the trip back across town to hear mass. My personal demon made one last volley.
Pharisee! You haven’t seen him but once since you moved here. What good is another mass going to do him--or you?
Oh, be quiet. Go away. I'm going because I want to. Because it's where I want to be. Leave me alone!
I'd already been to morning mass, so hearing mass again seemed even to me a bit excessive, but it's where I wanted to be, perhaps needed to be. In any case, it's where I found myself. I slipped into the rectory chapel at the downtown church I frequent, and took a corner seat, resting my head against the cool wall and looking at the crucifix, unspeaking, exhausted and for the moment, unthinking. A friend sat in the chair next to me, and I smiled by reflex.
The entrance antiphon was different from the one I had heard this morning, and it called me to attention, the words an antidote to the dialog in my head, the pain and the morning suddenly very different.
Come, you whom my Father has blessed, says the Lord. I was ill and you comforted me, I tell you, anything you did for one of my brothers, you did for me.
Then came the story of Tobit's blindness, in which his wife, annoyed with his contrariness, finally asks Where are all your charitable acts? See, your true character is showing itself!
True character. Illness reveals that, not only in the one who is sick, but those around him.
When RIchard fell ill, the motley crew of lawyers, clerks, judges and hangers-on that constituted his inner circle so many years ago found each other once again, in touch despite distance and the separation of jobs and the passage of years. We exchanged stories and pictures and found ourselves connected and enveloped in the companionship of years past. Visits were quickly made, letters, food, flowers and care packages sent. Calls went back and forth and it all surrounded Richard--and the rest of us--in love, the revealed character of this once thoroughly secular, cynical group surprising even ourselves.
And it's the same today. E-mails are flying and calls have been made and photographs are being sent. We're taking walks and saying prayers and crying on each other's shoulders and generally telling the world: Be quiet. Go away. This is what we want to do.
By the love you show one another will others know you are My disciples. The last words before communion, before I heard the priest tell me May Almighty God bless you today.
Oh, He has. Even in the midst of all this, He has. And I need to remember that.
In the voices of each other and in the words of the mass, I hear my Father, feel His arms around me as he lets me cry, and tells me in a soothing voice that it will all be fine. That while all my plans were well and good, they weren't His plans. And that even not knowing His plans, His timetable, somehow, I managed--we all managed--to find our way into His love and into Richard's. Not bad. Not bad at all.
I'd lifted Richard up during the intercessions with words I never thought I'd be saying--or at least, not for a while For the response of the soul of Richard Garland and the comfort of his family and friends, let us pray to the Lord.
As I left, one of the women called me over for a hug. I know you have been praying for him for a long time. We'll keep lifting him up. You too. God bless. Who knew that she had noticed, remembered?
The last words before the blessing echoed in my head as I walked on, surprisingly warmed, the ache at bay at least for a moment: May those of us who are strengthened by the Eucharist like St. John of God seek You above all things and live in this world as Your new creation.
That was my friend Richard. A man who lived, every day, as a new creation. The best lawyer I ever knew, never letting the adversarial nature of his job tarnish his innate good temper. A slightly renegade attorney who expressed his rebellious side in tried and true Catholic schoolboy style with a wardrobe of the most outlandish socks ever to be seen peeking out from under the hem of navy blue suit pants. A Catholic who quietly and consistently practiced his faith, in season and out, an example to me even before I knew I needed one. A brother in Christ who, on hearing of my reception into the Church, called to tell me Welcome Home!
Richard's nickname in the family was Slick, because on one family vacation, he failed to appreciate the unreliable nature of wet slickrock in Utah's mud season. Stepping off the flagstones that dotted a narrow path, he skittered down a slope to the hoots and catcalls of all. As he made his muddy way back up our son called out a statement that lodged itself permanently in the family lexicon: The stones are there for a reason!
The stones are there for a reason.
So they are. The stones of life are there for a reason, to give us purchase when the way gets muddy, and heart, or mind, or adversary threatens to send us down a treacherous slope. Richard was one of life's great stones, and I will miss him.
Tomorrow I will start the long journey of Lent, sadder and more somber than in a long, long time. I’ll receive the ashes that remind me this year all too clearly of my own mortality. I’ll be looking for the stones, the path through the desert. And at the end of it all, the greatest stone of all will wait--but it is the one that has been rolled away.
Easter’s coming. The stones are there for a reason.