Friday, April 23, 2010
“Jesus said, ‘Little children, I am with you only a little longer.’” (John 13:33)
“SOUL-SURFING” – May 2, 2010
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
One of my early childhood memories is attending the 1952 home funeral of Mr. Riley, our next door neighbor. Well, I didn’t actually attend the funeral; rather, I was the 4 year-old gawker sitting on the front steps of 4 South Main Avenue as just yards away at 2 South Main Avenue all manner of mystery played out. I watched the sleek black hearse with velvet-draped windows glide to the curb to deliver the now elegantly boxed Mr. Riley. I watched floral delivery vans unload beautiful, fragrant arrangements. I watched black-clad mourners enter and exit the Riley residence. Mind you, this was in the days before many households, including ours, had TV. Mr. Riley’s home funeral was live entertainment at its best for this curious 4 year-old!
Too young to appreciate the sensitivities of Mr. Riley’s widow and the annoyed mourners who took notice of my morbid interest in the proceedings, I just sat there on our front steps hour upon hour watching all the fuss at 2 South Main Avenue. Mom, busy with my younger siblings inside the house, had no idea that I was in training as a stalking paparazzi right on our front steps.
Someone must have snitched, though, for on the morning of the funeral, just as pallbearers solemnly bore Mr. Riley away from his home for the last time, Mom dashed out our front door, snatched me by the arm and wordlessly deposited me on the sofa in our living room. I was missing the best part! Pushing aside the curtains of the open window, I was mesmerized by the closing scene, the muffled sobbing of black-veiled Mrs. Riley as her coffined husband slid into the hearse, the exit procession of bountiful floral displays heaped onto the open bed of another sleek black vehicle, the headlights of the cortege pulling away from 2 South Main Avenue as it departed our street. This was theatre for sure! At least for a 4 year-old before the days of TV.
Neither Mom nor Dad ever spoke of Mr. Riley’s home funeral. Dad dropped news of the death on the kitchen table at breakfast the morning of the demise with a matter-of-factness that didn’t invite comment. And mom’s wordless actions on the morning of the funeral, kidnapping me from near attendance as a child mourner, gave the clear message that death was a subject that had no place whatever in our household. Period.
Yet our faith bids us develop a comfortability with death. Here we are in the Easter season, the time of year that reminds us so powerfully that death does not have the last word. And it’s springtime, the season that annually reminds us that what dies in the fall and sleeps beneath winter’s snow blooms vibrant once again. Indeed, it’s the time to speak of death as a thing defeated!
The setting of today’s gospel passage is Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. Wanting to prepare them for the incomprehensible events soon to unfold, “Jesus said, ‘Little children, I am with you only a little longer.’” (John 13:33) Surely, those sitting at table with him could have little idea what he was talking about, but, no doubt, they would recall these ominous words after his death. And even though he appeared to his followers three days after his crucifixion, he was different – somehow even more than alive. He’d beat death. And so would they, he promised.
I’ve just begun reading a book I heard reviewed a while back while listening to NPR on the car radio. Authored by gerontologist Dr. David Dosa, Making Rounds with Oscar: the Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat is a work of non-fiction that bids us befriend that most natural and universal of human experiences. Let the book jacket explain it.
“They thought he was just a cat. When Oscar arrived at the Steere House Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center in [Providence] Rhode Island he was a cute little guy with attitude. He loved to stretch out in a puddle of sunlight and chase his tail until he was dizzy. Occasionally he consented to a scratch behind the ears, but only when it suited him. In other words, he was a typical cat. Or so it seemed. It wasn’t long before Oscar had created something of a stir. Apparently, this ordinary cat possesses an extraordinary gift: he knows instinctively when the end of life is near.
“Oscar is a welcome distraction for the residents of Steere House, many of whom are living with Alzheimer’s. But he never spends much time with them – until they are in their last hours. Then, as if it were his job, Oscar strides purposely into a patient’s room, curls up on the bed, and begins his vigil. Oscar provides comfort and companionship when people need him most. And his presence lets caregivers and loved ones know that it’s time to say good-bye. Oscar’s gift is a tender mercy. He teaches by example: embracing moments of life that so many of us shy away from.”
The popularity of the book seems in direct proportion to the unpopularity of the subject: befriending death. Indeed, as I’m discovering page by page, Oscar the cat is a sort of secular Guardian Angel, a comforting, cuddly presence softly nuzzling a soul in transit. Indeed, for families unable to be present or even for those present but too distraught to offer such comfort, Oscar serves as proxy during one of life’s most intimate moments.
This day and all during this Easter season, Jesus bids his disciples and us, their heirs, to believe that he has forever destroyed death’s power. For us Christians, death is now the doorway to life, not a drear final destination. It’s something I sensed even as a 4 year-old gawking at Mr. Riley’s funeral proceedings. I still remember feeling more curious than scared. In truth, it was mom’s and dad’s silence on the matter that scared me. And now I’m reading about the compassionate ministrations of Oscar the cat. Yes, let’s talk about what scares us most, let’s talk about death, but as a thing defeated.
« Back To Archives