Life and Death

Late last Saturday, upon getting home from my daughter’s wedding, I switched on the computer to check my emails and found one informing me of the death of a much loved parishioner whom I have been seeing regularly in a hospice for the past few months.  It was an odd moment.  A wonderful day of laughter, pride, fun, and joyful tears would now come to a quiet end marked by sadness and a keen awareness of the vicissitudes of life.

Poignant memories are often wrought in the pendulum swings of emotion.  Sorrow mixed with humor, tears with joy, satisfaction with loss.  Somehow our minds are acutely impressionable in those times of transition between highs and lows.

I remember standing outside the morgue at Schiphol airport waiting for a mother to come identify the body of her son.  My heart was heavy with what was to come – the young man was barely recognizable after having committed suicide by lying on the train rails in the tunnel of the underground station.  More than 70 trains had been over him before his body was found.  As I stood outside the morgue letting the early morning sun warm my heart, an attendant came out, his lab coat smeared with body fluids, his task done.  “Well,” he said, “it was a lot of stitching, but we got him back together.”  Quietly he rolled himself a cigarette, lit it, took a deep puff and blew a long stream of smoke into the summer breeze.  He cleared his throat and I expected a solemn pronouncement about the tragedy which had enveloped us.

In the flattest of Amsterdam working class accents he proclaimed sadly and in all earnestness, “Too bad; I did my best but his neck is considerably longer than it used to be.”  He paused as he considered what he’d just said and then looked at me sheepishly before letting out a hearty laugh.  I couldn’t help but smile and chuckle with him; comedy is about timing and the unexpected twist.  Within moments the gallows humor was gone again and we silently went back to our sorry business.  The memory, though, remains fresh.

I’m always intrigued by how human we remain even at times when the space between the eternal and the temporal grows narrow.  How moments of extreme stress, of life and death events, of divine presence, are punctuated by supremely mundane and banal details.  It’s as if we can’t shake our frailty and commonness, not for a moment, not even when events of lasting significance are taking place.

As if God is pleased to have us remain fully human even as we stand at the edge of glory.

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