So we all have had people die in our lives, but some seem to stand out more than some others. Some examples from my life include:
1) Dave Connors, one of my college roommates, who died when he was 25. It was a true tragedy, albeit not totally unexpected. He was always in bad health during college and our senior year he had to have a defibrillator put in and very nearly died. He graduated with us which I was really happy about. We thought he had turned a corner with some new treatments, but then took a turn for the worst when he had a third defibrillator put in and he never recovered. He was only 25.
I learned much from his life and even more from his death. Dave lived every day as if he had another one and did so until he could no longer physically could. His last days in the hospital were marked by conversations with a young seminarian who helped him know God even better than he already did and come to terms with the bad hand life dealt him. I didn’t get to say good bye and was shocked to hear he had died. But I know Dave would want me to not focus on that, rather, he’d want me to live for others in his memory.
2) David Pipala and James McKinley: When I was a teenager these two guys were altar boys with me. David died in a car accident coming home from a hockey game. His car slid on either ice or a small oil spill and crashed into a tree. His cousin lived and was sent through the window (well before mandatory seat belt laws) but David was killed instantly.
James was a closer friend with whom I often served the 5:00PM Saturday evening mass. My dad really liked him too and would drive him home after mass. He died at a summer camp unexpectedly. I was 15, he was 16 or 17. He was the first person I knew well that had died. I was devastated. There was some suspicion around his death and I’m not really sure what happened. It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s nearly 30 years later and I still think about it.
3) My wife’s Uncle Andy: This was more recent. My wife’s uncle died after a botched surgery. He was 65 and came from a family of long-livers. Both his parents lived well into their 90s. The family was shocked. I led the wake service because Andy was a deacon and the parish was busy putting together special arrangements for a larger wake service and funeral. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. The entire parish school and all his diaconal brothers showed up for the funeral.
Andy was a great colleague. He often promoted my retreats and would call and give me a hard time about things. “I got a note about some kind of heretic who is running a retreat in my diocese.” he’d howl on the phone. And I’d chide him back, “That’s nothing. You should hear the heresy that’s being spoken from the pulpit in Jersey these days. Some deacon in Montville.” We’d laugh and catch up until the next family gathering. He was one of the first people to really make me feel welcome in Marion’s family and I miss him greatly at family events.
All of the deaths above came as a surprise, as they all died too young. It seems young people are not supposed to die in our minds. But young people DO die sometimes. What do we have do to come to terms with these deaths? We need to talk about it and perhaps to even be angry with God and to talk with God about that. That’s what we call prayer and God can handle our anger. We need to also sit and listen after we have listened. The book of Job reminds me that we don’t always understand the reasons things happen, but with trust in God we can rest easy in knowing that God can make all things new.