An elderly Vincentian priest I knew in New York died in his sleep the other morning. His funeral is this morning. I hadn’t seen Ken for at least six months before his death, nor had I spoken to him in quite a while. But about a week ago, I came into my office at St. Thomas and found a message from him on my answering machine, thanking me for some flowers I had sent him and giving me an update on his condition. I didn’t erase it the day I heard it and now, after his death, I can’t quite bring myself to erase it yet. The message remains, as do a couple of notes he wrote me over the last few months, which sit on a bookshelf in my study at home, forming part of an altar of sorts that contains some notes, pictures, stones and other small items that have some significance for me. I’ve looked at the notes a number of times since I got word of his death (pausing especially at the line in one where he observed that “all of a sudden, the ‘philosopher’ knows he has a body!”). The phone message and the notes are a tangible, physical piece of the person who is gone. (“Piece” isn’t quite right, but I mean something more than remembrance and can’t quite get the right word.)
I’m reminded of the death of a beloved uncle eleven years ago. He spent time in the last years of his life doing wood carvings and I remember how important it was for me after his death to have something he had carved, something I could touch that he had touched. And I remember that it took a long time for my aunt to change the message on her answering machine – his message, his voice. I can’t count how many times I dialed their number in the weeks following his death just so I could hear his voice on the answering machine (crying fresh tears of grief each time I heard it). And time and time again I would pick up one of his carvings and run my hand over it, feeling the connection to him.
The two deaths were very different for me. The Vincentian priest was of an age where death is not surprising when it comes; my uncle, with whom I had a much closer relationship, died at a much younger age (of pancreatic cancer, as did my father). But at whatever age someone who is part of the fabric of our lives dies and whatever is the cause of the death, I think there is something in us that wants to hold on. Maybe it is that hearing their voice, touching what they touched, reading what they wrote, and the like help us for a while as we adjust to their absence and transition to a life without them.
But only for a while. We can hold on for a while, but ultimately have to let go. My aunt ultimately changed the message on her answering machine and I stopped hearing my uncle’s voice when I called to speak to her. Now and then as I pass where they hang on the wall in my study, I run my hand over one of his carvings and smile at a remembrance of some moment between us (like when I called him collect from Thailand to wish him Happy Birthday one year), but I don’t cling to the touch as I once did. I let go, handing him completely over to God. And the time will come over the next few weeks when I will listen to Ken’s phone message from last week one last time and then erase it, not feeling the need to hold onto it. And turn him completely over to God.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. Amen.