Some events stand out in life as if they happened just yesterday. One can remember the sights, sounds, smells, people, places and feelings as if they were coursing through the senses at this very moment. Such was my experience on 30 March, when I prayed for my Dad, who died on that date in 1968. I was 17 years old, a senior in high school, at our senior prom. Just a shade more than two months before my graduation from Winter Haven High School (Central Florida). In a moment, that whole evening and following day flooded into the present.
My Dad turned 54 just four days prior to his untimely death (26 March). He was in the hospital, after having a heart attack on 22 March. It was a second major heart attack that struck him down in the hospital that Saturday night 42 years ago. Had he lived, he would be 96 years old now.
Last night, Denise and I went to one of our favorite pizza parlors to celebrate her Dad's birthday. He was born on 31 March 1919 (Frank Dama was a first generation Italian-American and made the best pizza I have ever had). Somewhat like my Dad, "Dad Frank" died two weeks after we announced Denise's pregnancy with our first child. Somewhat like my Dad, he and Denise's Mom were on a trip and in a hotel room in Richmond, VA -- where he quietly and suddenly succumbed to a heart attack. That was on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend 1984. Frank would be 91 had he lived to this moment.
These are not macabre stories but life events that have shaped members of my family and framed my own journey as a son, friend, brother, husband and father. As I experienced the "re-membering" of my Dad's death on 30 March 1968, it wasn't me going back to that moment and those times. I have done that (years ago) and found myself only wallowing in the sentiment of a 17 year old who had no experiences of life by which to compare the tragedy that seemed to overpower me at that time. Instead, the event came to me as a "presence of moment" -- and I was placing myself, the 59 year old son who did graduate from high school, graduated from college, served in the armed forces, completed graduate school and engaged the world as a parish priest for better than three decades. Now, having wrestled with death and witnessed the deaths of colleagues, friends, parishioners and patients too numerous to count, my perspective is different.
I am not immune to the pain of death. If anything, I have become much more sensitive to it. I know it by sight, sound, smell and touch. I've journeyed with those who have grieved their losses. I have grieved with them in my own heart...privately in order to be fully present to them in their moment.
In the early morning hours of 3 March 2009, I received a call I had dreaded for several weeks. It was the younger brother of one of my very dearest friends and colleagues, Fr. Paul Wolfe. Paul had died shortly before...after nearly four years of struggle with cancer. This was really close to home. Paul and I were only four months apart in age. Both of us grew up in Central Florida. We were classmates during our graduate studies at Nashotah House Seminary. We partnered in the operation of a consulting organization for the Church until I left to be Dean of the Cathedral in South Bend, IN in 1993. We talked and emailed regularly over the years...and almost daily over the four years of his illness. When one looks into the coffin of a friend like that, it is much like looking into a mirror.
I was a patient at St. Luke's Hospital the two days prior to the first anniversary of Paul's death. Chest pain and vascular issues had created concern for my cardiologists, and they determined that I would have a cardiac catheterization....immediately. It would be my third such procedure, since the discovery of the genetic condition that laid me out in the cathedral, January 1995. The results showed nothing new...in fact, remarkably clear coronary arteries and very good heart pressures. The problem? A change in medication that led to coronary artery spasms....chest pain. Back on the original med and no more chest pain.
The morning after my release from the hospital, I was engaged in contemplative prayer and giving thanks for renewed health. Paul "came to me" without my specifically thinking of this being the anniversary date. Again, this moment was not going back to the feelings and experiences of that week a year ago (I preached at his Requiem liturgy). Instead, the event came to me as an invitation into the present. What have I learned about myself and my life since that week? What have I learned about others and the capacity to be open to the painful moments of their journeys? Have I grown and changed? Or, have I simply wallowed in the mire of self-pity, fear and attendant anxieties surrounding the inevitabilities of this life journey?
From that, I took the mantra that I put forth in my last blog. I am aging --- NOT getting old.
Now that we have entered the holiest three days of the Christian Year (known historically as the Triduum Sacrum), the temptation is to engage the liturgies of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Great Vigil of Easter as us looking back at the historical moments of those three days of Jesus' life. Nothing could be farther from the truth!
Nothing has changed in history about the human condition. We may be more sophisticated intellectually. We may have become a more compassionate and just people (MAYBE, but that is for the next blog). We still, however, must answer questions about who we are; why we are here; and what is our ultimate purpose.
If we are to do this in a manner that points us forward, we must place ourselves in these liturgies as a participant in the event as it is being made present to us right now...in the moment. "Love one another, as I have loved you." "Do this in remembrance of me." "Watch and pray with me." We must do that this Maundy Thursday night. "Why have you forsaken me." "I thirst." "Into your hands I commend my spirit." We must engage this struggle and pain on Good Friday. "He is not here, he has risen." "Why do you seek the living among the dead." "Touch me and know the truth." We must embrace what it means to be healed, restored and incorporated into the Body (salvation).
These Three Holy Days are our days. It is the "Presence of Moment" that brings all that has transpired into the experiences we are now having in this moment of our history. It is what we will take away from this that will determine how we grow forward....grow forward.