“Rita couldn’t have the surgery. It’s spread to her lymph nodes.” I was at church for our annual Mass of Remembrance—a lovely Mass for all those who died in the past year, with individual candles for each of the deceased. Ironically, I was there to light the candle for my friend Claire (her husband wasn’t sure he could make it in time) when Sherry told me the news about another friend in a tough cancer battle.
I slid into the pew next to Rita and squeezed her hand.
Stage IV. Inoperable. Metastasized.
I couldn’t help but think that Rita might well have a candle on that altar next year, maybe the next. As she remembered the dead, her mortality was laid bare.
It’s been a year of great joy, what with the wedding and all, but also one that has me thinking more about my own mortality. Claire died in May, just as our youngest was graduating from college and moving on with life. Another son is married and another is buying a house. Subtly, but inevitably, the next generation is taking on the heavy lifting of life while I move into a supporting role. And of course the wedding highlighted the hole left by the death of my daughter-in-law’s parents, both only 42 when they passed, and the reality that we can’t take any number of years for granted.
I don’t say this to be morbid or depressing, and my reflection on mortality hasn’t felt morbid at all. I think there is a beauty in living Memento Mori (remember death), to keep sight of our mortality as a way of balancing our earthly preoccupations with the transcendent and lasting. I haven’t gone as far as Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble who keeps a (ceramic) skull on her desk and tweets daily reflections with #mementomori, but I’m not afraid of death (though the work my soul is going to require pretty much assures me an extensive stay in purgatory). Looking at my life as more than just the here and now is both a challenge to draw closer to God and a comfort. And just as we couldn’t fathom what our earthly life would hold on the day we were born, we can’t fathom what our next will bring on the day we die—and He’s promised, if we lived in Him, it’s pretty awesome. (After all, He gave us chocolate cake and sunsets and puppies in this life, imagine what’s to come!)
We could take a lesson from Mexico, where Día de Muertos is a community celebration of those who have passed, and by extension, our human mortality. Families create altars commemorating the deceased, with their favorite food and drink and tokens from their earthly journey. (When you make mine, please have nachos and a nice Napa Cab. Oh, and pictures of my dogs.) The prayers are for the souls of the dearly departed, but the celebration is a reassurance to those still among the living. For while we might not fear physical death, we do dread the figurative death of being forgotten when we are gone. Dia de Muertos is the living embodiment that love is indeed stronger than death.
At the end of our Mass of Remembrance the names of the departed were read aloud, one by one. Head bowed, I listened, remembered, and teared up a bit when I heard Claire’s name. When they were done, I looked up and saw that Claire’s husband had quietly slipped into the pew. He hugged me, wiping away his own tears. “Thank you for being here for her.”
I’ve taken to expressing condolences with the traditional Jewish expression—“May her memory be a blessing.” Doesn’t that sum up what we hope to achieve during however many spins around the sun the Lord grants us? To be a blessing and to be remembered? When we are the ones to mourn, we are consoled, blessed, by the memories we have. In turn we pray for those souls, that they may reach the ultimate blessing, communion with God in heaven.
Don’t you forget about me,