It was nearly time. Chuck’s funeral would start in a few hours and it wouldn’t be easy. The circumstances that brought me to this day were described in my previous post (Late Flowers for a Friend – Lamenting Chuck’s Death). Now the reality was setting in. The funeral for a forty year-old. With a fiance and two children. With a living father, mother and stepmother. With a younger sister – now become an only child. It was nearly time. But not yet.
I took the day off from clinic. Knowing that sandwiching an emotional goodbye to a childhood friend between office visits would be a bad idea for my patients and me, I found myself with unforeseen time on my hands. The funeral would be in Roseville, a St. Paul suburb where Chuck and I grew up. Not planning to pick my wife up until just prior to the funeral and knowing that I had no emotional reserve to work on patient charts, I decided to simply start driving.
It’s a wonder what you think about and where you end up when you are driving alone and have time on your hands. As thoughts and memories of my childhood flooded me, freeway became highway and highway became sidestreet. Before too long, I found myself driving by my high school. A sprawling building with newly-gated off entrances. Its name “Roseville Area High School” still endured since my father, once Superintendent of Schools, consolidated the two existing high schools into one. Its football field was snow-covered while a tackling football sled bitterly rusted brown yet defied the elements. This is where Chuck and I played football together. I pulled into the parking lot of the District Center Building across the street where my father used to work. I slowed the car down and peered in the windows where I could still envision him leaning back in his chair, smiling in casual conversation with one arm draped over his head, but the glass was obscured with vertical blinds and frost. As a high schooler, walking into that office to see my dad, who always had time for me, everyone knew me. And yet today I drive by in a stealthy fashion. Why? No one there knows me now.
Up the hill across from the football field was my old house which my sisters and I call “the B2 house” after the street on which it is situated. This was the house of my middle school and early high school years. And it is tinged with pain. It is where my parents’ divorce and its fallout came full force. The siding is now beige and a foreign car sits in the driveway. The large metal clothesline in the backyard that fell on top of me in a ridiculous accident is no longer there. No dogs run in the yard. The neighbors, elderly when I was a boy, have most likely passed away.
Down the street and around the corner, I surveyed the larger schoolyard. Backstops of baseball days leaned precariously forward. Bike paths surely worn by a thousand of my bike rides and afternoon jogs greeted me anew. Vivid songs from days gone by instantly came into my mind and made me think of dreams I had crafted, friends I got into trouble with and girls I had crushes on. Driving further, I found the street where Chuck’s dad lived. The screen door that swung open and shut a thousand times as carefree kids like us came and went still remained. The garage which formerly heaved with junk and could barely be shut was now closed. The basketball hoop we shot innumerable balls into still hung bent from its peeling backboard. Five blocks further on brought me to Chuck’s mom’s apartment. It was a worn brick building standing embarrassed behind a gas station that still seemed new from when it first opened twenty-five years ago. The same frosted light over the side entrance burned eternally. But Chuck’s second floor window allowed no transparency. I drove by slowly peering up. Was my friend in there eating a hurried bowl of cereal in the midst of the messy, clothes-strewn living room? Was his thin, witty and ever-smoking mom still looking at him with cocked eyebrow and curled lip sarcastically, yet lovingly saying “Come on, Chuck.” No. Time had passed. And today was Chuck’s funeral.
My wife and I, at the appointed time, found ourselves in the rear section of a Lutheran church. The church was not very full, but hundreds had made it to the wake the day before. A red urn surrounded by flowers sat stark in the front impossibly small for so large a man. Psalms, Philippians, Matthew. Amazing Grace, Eagles’ Wings. The pastor, perhaps a bit too chipper, played a full song from 1971 that he selected for his sermon called “Put Your Hands in the Hand (of the Man who Stills the Waters)” and discussed the need for trust in a world of uncertainty. It all moved a bit more quickly than I preferred. But it was the sweet, sweet eulogy by his aged mom and the figure of his father, formerly a bigger jocular man, now thinned by COPD and stooped by grief that hit me hard. In that back pew, head bowed, I wept. And wept.
My wife and I sat just a few moments longer after all had left the sanctuary. The urn stood still. Impassive. It just couldn’t be. We greeted his sister, shared some warm, healing, yet choked up memories with his father, stepmother and mother. To my surprise, they remembered me and details of our friendship, even though Chuck and I had drifted apart. But that’s what parents do. They remember us because they love their kids. And they love the kids their kids loved.
We exchanged conversation and some hugs with friends I hadn’t seen in years and then we left. Yet I still ached. And as my wife and I held hands while driving away, I thought about what the pastor said and how to comprehend this loss. The conventional wisdom is that somehow we are to grow from suffering and pain (and, mind you, I suffer nowhere near the degree endured by Chuck’s fiance, children or parents). There is this notion that there is a cosmic sense to the tragedy of a young person or child dying. Heck, I even teach Catholic high school kids on the topic of suffering. I can pull out quotes and insights from Flannery O’Connor, George Bernanos, Pope John Paul II or Joan of Arc to intellectually explain the art and nature of suffering in the Catholic narrative. And I believe it, faithfully. So following conventional wisdom and the apparent wisdom I presume to have, what is the bright side of funerals for the young? And do you want to know what I have learned?
There is none. There is no bright side to this tragic event.
This terrible, devastating event and this deep, gnawing ache that accompanies it is incomprehensible. There is no satisfying, rectifying, comforting answer for we humans to understand. There is seemingly cool and aloof mystery that we must allow to be solved and revealed to us when our lives, too, are over – when, as Paul says, we will no longer look through a glass darkly, but instead see face to face.
And so, while family comforts, friends console and time dulls, but never eliminates, the sharpness of tragic pain, the ache remains. Yes. Yes it does. And yet, on the morning of the funeral, I came across the day’s Gospel reading from Mark,
When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.
They recognized Jesus. And they ran. They didn’t walk. They ran. Wherever he was, wherever he went, they desperately, impulsively, hopefully put their greatest and most cumbersome weaknesses in the marketplace for all to see. With wide eyes and open hearts they simply believed and wanted only to touch the edge of his dirty cloak. To be near him. Begging. Crying. Groaning. Believing. And finding healing.
And so I will look for no bright side of the funeral for Chuck. Or of any other tragedy I may encounter in life. But in my pain, I will look for Christ. I may beg. I may cry. I may groan. But I will believe. And someday, in some way, I will – we all will – find healing.