A thin bedsheet was folded and draped over his genitals, as if he were a Renaissance fresco doctored by a prudish bishop. The twenty-year-old boy’s sleek body could have been the subject of a Caravaggio painting, were it not for the now-disconnected breathing tube protruding from his throat, the only obvious token of the vain medical efforts to save him after a motorcycle accident.
And it was all incongruous, down to the last detail. Trauma staff had withdrawn from the emergency room, still stocked with life-saving equipment. The boy’s family (Asian-Americans in a white, working-class town) crowded in amidst the machinery. Most of all, the boy’s exemplary health and beauty contrasted starkly with the lifelessness of his cooling body.
Even the Priest Was Wrong
Even I was wrong. I happened to be a priest on hand in the hospital and was able to anoint the boy as the medical staff gave up and declared him dead. All good, but I was the wrong priest: The boy’s father, a state trooper, knew and loved the state chaplain, who was hours away in another part of the state.
Family members spoke earnestly to me of their eagerness to have the troopers’ chaplain with them for the crisis. I imagine their speech was partly an instinctive effort to make a connection with me, whom they perceived merely as another priest. I imagine it was also an instinctive grasping for hope: “Someone is coming who will somehow make this better.” But it exaggerated my feelings of impotence.
For what could I do? Earlier in my priestly life, I had ministered to parents who’d lost children, but only by consoling them at the funeral home or preaching at the funeral, and never in the immediate moment of untimely death. I had also been at the bedsides of the elderly at the moment of death, and knew something about being a sign of God’s ongoing care and promise. But this was the occasion neither for my usual preaching nor for bittersweet reassurances.
Instead, there was a cruelly sudden death, the family’s shock and horror, the ugly clutter of useless machinery, and a stupefied priest. I, the representative of Jesus Christ who raised the dead, was unable to say, “It will all get better,” because I wasn’t sure that it would, at least not in any way foreseeable in this world. I was unable to offer God’s strength for the duration of the boy’s passover into death, which appeared to have been all too quick.
I wondered what I might have said to Mary as she watched her Son crucified. I suppose I might have mentioned Mary to the family, but my intuition in the moment was that such a reference might have seemed a reproach, as if to say, “Our blessed Mother with heroic trust endured her Son’s death, so why can’t you stop your wailing and have some faith?”
So I just waited, occasionally offering a prayer, especially when new family members would make it into the emergency room. I know the pastoral theologians write of “the ministry of presence,” but I’m pretty sure my presence was of little service to the mourners. I was, at best, a placeholder until the family chaplain should come, and it wasn’t clear to me that even his arrival would do much good.
In later days, however, a lesson emerged for me: Don’t think you have death figured out. With all my degrees and experience and extensive chaplains’ training, all my wit and prayer and sacrifice, I had begun to fantasize that I was competent to help in almost any situation. I was not.
The way of the Cross entails deeper shadows than I had hitherto imagined. I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’ reflection on his wife’s death in A Grief Observed, which opens so forcefully, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” Or better still, of his novel, Till We Have Faces, in which a gruesome old priest becomes a living mockery of the modernist’s effort to prettify everything with clean, rational theology, and a little Renaissance beauty. Sometimes, the Cross is perceived merely as an ugly instrument of torture and death — which it is.
For me, now, that’s a freedom. I don’t feel so obliged to qualify every sorrow, or always to point out of the Shadowlands into the sky. Recently in my parish, a young woman died of an exotic illness, despite a long fight and the support of hundreds of friends and family. Her funeral was well-attended, but I could feel the anxiety in the room as I prepared to preach.
I began, “This is not right,” and quite a few sighed as their tension relaxed. No, it was not right. We give thanks for the love we shared, for the love shown us, but still we lament what is wrong. Death is one reason why we need, still need, a Savior.