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The Divine Hours of Lent

Eight weeks ago today, on the last Saturday of 2007 and two days before New Year’s Eve, Devereaux Dunlap Cannon, Jr. got up, went into his kitchen to start the morning coffee, headed back through his dining room toward his study, and never made it all the way across the room. Instead, he fell unconscious just at the dining room door. His wife, still upstairs, heard him fall and went down to find him in the floor, but conscious again. She asked him what had happened, he said he had no idea at all, she told him to lie still, and then she called 911. The EMTs came, brought in a stretcher to transport him, and then they all realized that while his eyes were still open, Devereaux Dunlap Cannon, Jr was dead.
His was perhaps the most dramatic death I have ever been intimately involved with, its sheer drama making it seem surreal and unreal even these almost two months later. Devereaux had been our son-in-law for thirty-one of his fifty-three years. He was married to our oldest daughter, Nora, was the father of Kate and Devereaux Dunlap Cannon, III, and the grandfather of Devereaux Dunlap Cannon, IV and Brian Cannon. People don’t die like that. People don’t just drop over dead, especially not good people–and he was a very good man–and especially not people in early middle-age with children and grandchildren still to see to and love on and enjoy. But he did…without pain or apparent distress, he lay on his dining room floor, smiled at his wife, and died.
He was a devout Roman Catholic, our son-in-law, as is Nora, our daughter, and their children and grandchildren. I used to tease him that he was more Roman than the Pope, and his retort always was, “Yes’m, that’s how it should be.”
Part of the events two days later, on New Year’s Eve and then later on the morning of New Year’s Day, had to do with the shock of the whole thing, I know that. Part of them had to do with the fact that he had indeed been a Christian who put his life where his professions and practice of faith were. He had also, as a lawyer, been generous with this skills and much loved in his parish. Even so, I have never seen a sequence of events like those surrounding his burial.
On Monday night, there was a Vigil, his body being brought with prayers and psalms into the church itself and left there afterward in holy space to await its burial. The church itself–a very large one–was packed with people, many of them wiping their eyes, all of us stunned. The next morning, there was a funeral mass, again with a church filled to seating capacity by mourners. Then there were the grave-side services and the internment itself. The road to the cemetery was lined with cars, and the cortege seemed endless. Once the casket was lowered into the ground, the firing squad–for he had been a Lt. Colonel in the Tennessee State Guard–began their salvos, and even a canon was fired.
We made our way back to Nora’s house which, within half an hour, was so filled with people that I could find no place to sit down. There were people everywhere and of all kinds, from infants–one was five-days-old, in fact–to the ancients like us. And suddenly the weeping and the long faces of the previous eighteen hours were gone as naturally as they had come. Children raced around, men opened up a bar so that beer and wine could begin to flow, women with more food than one can describe were laying tables in every room of that house. Conversations were everywhere…some of them remembering and some of them consoling and some of them concerned, but all of them animated and all of them punctuated by one thing.
When the parish priest had stood up on Monday night to commence the homily for the Vigil, he had begun with the words: “In sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.” He had hesitated a moment, and then said, “When Nora called me Saturday morning from the hospital where they had taken Devereaux, to tell me what had happened, her first words to me were, ‘In sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.'” And after that, he proceeded to deliver his eulogy, concluding again with the words, “And so we stand and we live, as Devereaux knew, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.”
Father would repeat those words on New Year’s Morning as he spoke to the congregation at the funeral mass. They would be part of the grave-side conversation; and they would flow and swirl around all the food-laden tables and jostling conversations at Devereaux’s wake.
Just as I had never seen so dramatic a death as this, so too I had never seen a community, which was clearly in shock, none the less live out so vibrantly and un-self-consciously the pain and the joy that is death among us. “We may mourn, but also we must celebrate and rejoice,” said my daughter and all those gathered around her, ” for we live ‘in sure and certain hope of Resurrection.’ That, of course, is the cry of Lent. It just means more this year than in past Lents.
Rest in peace, Devereaux.

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