This afternoon Devan and I attended the funeral mass of a young man, 18 years old, killed in a road accident just a few days ago. This young man, a friend of our son’s, lived one street over and as a middle school student would spend time playing basketball in our driveway or skateboarding up and down our street. While out walking our dog Tuesday, this young man drove by; he stopped, waved, and said, “How are you, Mrs. Veatch?” In less than 9 hours, that young man would be dead.
Jack accompanied us to the funeral, a sense of dread showing on his face. Right before we left to drive to the church, he said, “I don’t think I do funerals well” and I sensed how uncomfortable he was to be attending a service for a friend whose life was cut short at 18. Jack has encountered few deaths in his almost 17 years, especially of anyone he knew personally, especially of an age-peer. Death is for the old, the sick, those who have lived their lives; as Henry Melville said, “Youth is immortal; tis the elderly only grow old.” But those of us who have lived longer know differently.
During the service I watched Jack out of the corner of my eye; stoic, unsmiling, holding back tears; and as I watched him I felt conflicted. Part of me longed to pick him up, that big man-child, and hold him close to provide comfort. I longed for him to be 6 or 7 or 9, young enough so I could physically manage his whereabouts and his choices, defending him from the world and its dangers. Another part of me wanted to just shake him and scream, “Please don’t be stupid. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way. Can’t you see what can happen?” But of course, I did neither. Instead I sat and listened and prayed for the mother and father seated in the front of the church, watching as they experienced a pain like no other.
I also found myself thinking of another funeral, one that took place over 40 years ago. My own brother Jimmy, then not much older than the one whose service I was attending today, was also killed in a car accident late one night. My own brother whose birthday was this very day, October 2nd. If his life had not ended on that dark road, today we would be celebrating his 64th year. But he is not 64 – I cannot even imagine – and he will instead be always frozen in youth. So many times I’ve heard my father say what he wouldn’t give to go fishing with Jimmy just one more time. One more meal together. One more talk. One more chance to Love.
I don’t want to read anything into the fact that on today, my brother’s birthday, I would find myself at a memorial service for another . . . but I would be amiss if I did not pause and consider the mystery of it all. Life. Death. Youth. Age. At 18 many think they are invincible. At 64 and beyond most realize they are not. How do I convince my own son that life is not a given, that at any moment an accident or an illness could change everything? That the harsh words he sometimes chooses could be the last words he speaks? I cannot. He, like each of us, must come to that realization himself and no shaking, screaming or controlling on my part can make that decision for him or for anyone. What I can do, however, is Love.
At the end of the day . . . at the end of our lives . . . Love is really all there is. God’s Love for us. Our Love for God and others. Love. Love that holds back piercing and wounding words, replacing them with thoughtful listening and care. Love that sees beyond differences and instead embraces them. Love that lets go of control and demands and, instead, creates healthy boundaries. And, as I was reminded today, Love that reaches out with each and every breath as if it was its last.