I was at Mass the other day, and I noticed Joe. Joe is probably 85 years old, which means he’s been in the Society of Jesus for over 65 years. He lives in a Jesuit retirement center outside Milwaukee, and after a lifetime of apostolic work, he is now missioned to pray. Petite and slow, his holiness and joy are abundantly clear. Beneath thick hipster-type glasses and coke-bottle lenses his eyes shimmer with youth, and he is frequently fixed with a slight smile. As the much younger presider began the Eucharistic prayer, Joe followed along in his personal missalette, more-than-whispering the words to himself.
The chapel was cavernous, and Joe’s voice carried in such a way that there was an echo, a haunting reverb to the presider’s words, an ancient-sounding utterance lifting itself from the depths of the earth. Just as I pondered this strange, beautiful sound, Joe glanced down and realized his pants were unzipped. Without worry, he paused, drew up his fly and carried on. He wasn’t concerned with zippers or multitasking or working long hours. He wanted to pray.
My cousin married a dynamic man about 20 years ago, and he was beloved. Shortly after he became a part of our family, however, he was diagnosed with melanoma. Eventually, the disease ran its full course and he died. He was in his early 30’s.
Months later, we met at a small country cemetery near Denmark, WI to put his ashes in the ground and say goodbye. During the graveside ceremony, I stood next to my grandmother, a breast cancer survivor, mother of 9 adult children, many more grandchildren and great-grandchildren following. She was simple and beautiful and tough. But she was crying.
And I did nothing.
I was confused and sad about the death of someone so young, and I figured she’d be the next to go. The idea of engaging her scared me. I didn’t want anything to do with death, and putting my arm around her would only endear me more to another person who wouldn’t stick around. She died years later when I was in graduate school, in her 90s. I loved her. But in her absence, it’s not so much that I miss her. It’s more that I regret never giving myself the chance to. I should have wrapped her up in my arms.
I turned 33 a few weeks ago, “the year they killed Jesus,” as a friend reminded me. I’m not old by most standards, and I don’t feel old. But, the signs are there. I’m bald. I’m a little too heavy. Subtle crows’ feet are visible at the corners of my eyes. I just finished a round of physical therapy for a partially torn rotator cuff, and my back aches in the morning. I know a few people who didn’t live as long as I have; my friends Amy, Patrick, and Brendan from college, my friend’s brother Matt, and others like, well, like Jesus. I know many more people, though, who will outlive me – the resilient and the hearty who will remain long after I’m gone. As I encounter the dead and dying, young, old, and in between, I wonder about the living who remain: those of us who keep breathing, who keep walking into broken hearts, who have to continue to make sense of a messy world and a messy life within it. I wonder whether I’m living well.
Another old Jesuit (70-ish) recently explained to me over supper that if something were to happen to him–an accident or some other medical emergency–he was going with a DNR code – do not resuscitate. He was ready if God called him. I said, “But you’re so young! Why wouldn’t you want to try and nab a few more years?”
“Eric,” he said with serious eyes, “either you believe it or you don’t. And I believe it. So, the way I figure, my death day is going to be the best day of my life.” I believed him. And, I believe what he believes. Or, I hope I do.
I hope I can laugh at an unzipped fly. I hope I can remain with the hurt and suffering people of this world. I hope that, when I’m broken down, someone who loves me won’t be afraid to hold me up. I hope to be beside my grandmother again, my young arm draped over her aging shoulders, her tears soaking into my wrinkled polo shirt. I hope she gazes upon me with forgiving eyes, and embraces me in return. I hope that when my end comes, I’ll be brave enough to face it.
To age well is to love well and to be free from the fear that death is all there is. Then, if I hear again an ancient voice coming up from the depths, I hope to remember how we live forever when we live with God.