A couple of weeks ago, a memorial Mass for Michael was held here in Birmingham at the Cathedral. The bishop presided and offered a very nice, even charming homily in which he first focused on the Scripture readings of the day, and then turned to Michael, whom he remembered, among other things, as one who […]
What you’ll read here is nowhere near the sum of what is going on. I’m not using this space to pour out and expose everything that is going on. I’m using it to share thoughts and experiences that have been helpful to me and that I hope will be helpful to others, and to give space to discuss and share. The comments in the previous post are astonishing and beautiful, and I thank all of you for opening in this way and being of support to me and to others.
So don’t drop me notes or comments worrying, you’re not letting yourself grieve. I don’t see it in your blog. You might be tempted to say that especially after reading this post. Don’t worry. Don’t worry about that at all. It’s there.
I had the great blessing of speaking to the person who was on the treadmill next to Michael and was the first to come to his aid. I will not go into details here, but it will suffice to make two points about what she told me:
- There was no struggle or consciousness of what had happened, no words, no stopping, clutching of chest or struggling for breath. He simply dropped mid-stride and within a minute had stopped breathing.
- Everything that could have been done at the scene was done. This person knew CPR. There were other off-duty emergency professionals who were working out at the time who attended him, using CPR and the defibrillator before the regular EMTs arrived. If this was going to happen, this was the place it could have happened where he would get the most help, short of a hospital.
What this means is that although many questions continue to haunt, the one that does not is, “If only someone had gotten to him sooner…if only there had been more help.” This could have happened in our exercise room here at the apartment complex or at the little lake across the street where we occasionally go exercise. Depending on the nature of what it was that caused this, it could have happened in the car, resulting in even more tragedy. If it had happened while he was exercising here, he would not have been discovered for several minutes, and there would not have been the level of help available that there was. So at least that is not a question. I am very grateful for those who did their best at that moment, those who were praying, and for the willingness of people to talk to me about it.
We arrived in Gainesville on Thursday, and stayed there through Sunday. The little boys spent the days with their cousins, I had meetings in St. Augustine on Friday, and spent Saturday thinking about and working on what I would say at the Mass on Monday.
Sunday morning it was time to go to St. Augustine. We left about 10:30, because I didn’t want to be in a rush, wanted to see if I could check into the Hilton early and really prepare ourselves.
I suppose you should know, too, that it was Sunday I dreaded more than anything else. To see him again, not alive, unable to avoid the real, concrete truth at last – I was terrified. Terrified of the strangeness and mystery before me. Trying to let the truth I claim to believe reign in my life and heart, but failing.
I was driving, Katie was in the front, and the boys in the back, of course. This is Michael’s car we are driving now, since it was the better car – the day he died, a notice came in the mail announcing it had been paid for. I saw the Bible he had on the ledge against the back window, and told Joseph to grab it and hand it to Katie.
Without thinking much about it, I told her to start reading from the Gospel of Mark. Why? There was a consciousness about it – both Michael and I love the Gospel of Mark. We liked talking about it. He was fascinated by what it reveals about Jesus and his disciples, especially in contrast to the popular view that what we have in the Twelve and the Master is a merry band of fellows completely in sync at all times. Well, when you read the Gospel of Mark, you see how false that image is. The apostles, besides being generally clueless, were also generally confused and intimidated by Jesus most of the time.
So I had her read aloud and after a couple of chapters, I stopped her, to see if she was paying attention to what she was reading.
“What word,” I asked, “are you reading over and over?”
She thought about it, and studied the pages.
Euthus. The Gospel of Mark is infused with a sense of urgency. Immediately he got up. Immediately they went out. Immediately.
And then…immediately the thought came to mind of how much this characterized Michael. As his friends said Sunday night, Michael was all about immediately. He was the one who got things going socially. At work, where ever he was working at the time, he was all about creatively assessing a situation, coming up with responses to those situations, getting this going and working hard to motivate others to get off their tails, get past their hesitancy and fear, and just do it. Immediately.
It struck me, partly in sadness, that it also characterized his way of going to Christ at the end. Immediately.
So she read on, and I continued to let what I was hearing interact with what I had been thinking about for the previous five days, what I had written the day before in plans for Monday.
Jesus preached the Kingdom, preached repentance, healed, told parables – retreated in prayer – and did it all over again. The easiest thing for me to do here is to reprint part of what I had written, and part of what I said on Monday:
All of these influenced him, God worked through all of them in Michael’s life. But he was always so careful to remember – and to remind me on my own spiritual journey, with my own set of experiences and influences – to not make idols of any of them. To not expect any of them to save us – not even the human beings we love most in the world – to not make our happiness dependent on their presence in our lives -– because only Christ can save us. God alone. And so in all of the stuff of life – stuff he greatly enjoyed – he was always, constantly, looking for the presence of Jesus Christ, his savior and ours. And that , I am convinced, is what he would want me to say to you and to myself about this moment – look for Jesus Christ, here and now. He is here. One of Michael’s coworkers wrote that since Michael died while he was running, she imagined him running right into Jesus’ arms. He was looking for Jesus, and finally, being finished running that race, reached him at last.
This is not BS. It is not just what people who work for the Church are supposed to say. It was truly the focus of Michael’s life and as I pondered this, it occurred to me that during all the years that we knew each other and all the conversations and arguments we would have about these kinds of things, I was being prepared for this moment. There is a lot more to this than I’ll say here, but just understand that in letting all of this surge through me as I listened to the Gospel, tears surged up from deep within and I was startled to consider those tears and realize that for the first time in five days, there was no sadness or grief in them. It was not joy – it was gratitude. the grief would return soon afterward, but at that moment, I felt nothing but gratitude. And a firm belief of the reality of the Way, the Truth and the Life. Now, with Christ, as we hope and pray, Michael is embraced, fully known, and fully loved. What we all seek in our wanderings.
But then I immediately felt bad. Where does this fit? It is not right. There should be no break in the sadness. People will think I didn’t love him.
By then, Katie had reached chapter 5. My favorite story from Jesus’ life, one that I have relied on and been nourished by for a decade, rather intensely. The Gerasene demoniac.
You know the story. The man is possessed and lives among the tombs. He is as if dead. A legion dwells within. Jesus drives the demons out. The villagers come and see the man, clean and healed.
They turn to Jesus, and what is their response? Thank you? Do for us what you did for him? Heal us? Help us? Drive out our demons, less in number and quieter, but demons still? Make us whole, as he is?
The reason that has resonated with me so much over the years is that I think it characterizes so much about the spiritual journey. Mine at least. Grace surrounds us. The witness of good, holy people surround us – joyful. The fruit of love is as clear as day, the spoiled fruit of selfishness and indulgence is also as clear as day. The power of Jesus is right here. He waits, in love.
In a rush, the connections came, it knit together more quickly than I could process. Immediately. God Alone. Leave Us.
There are stages, there are layers, there are bridges. There is a void, my best friend in the world is just – gone. But in this moment I am confronted with the question, most brutally asked, of whether I really do believe all that I say I believe. Into this time of strange, awful loss, Jesus stepped in. He wasted no time. He came immediately. His presence was real and vivid and in him the present and future, bound in love, moved close. The gratitude I felt for life now and forever and what had prepared us for this surged, I was tempted to push it away for the sake of propriety, for what is expected, for what was supposed to be normal – I was tempted to say, “Leave me” instead of accepting the Hand extended to me and to immediately allow him to define my life.
But I did not give into that temptation, and a few hours later I was able to do what I dreaded, what I thought was undoable, to be in a mystery that was both presence and absence and to not be afraid. To not be afraid for him, and for the first time ever in my entire life – to not be afraid for myself , either.