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Life Before Death

Rev. Anthony T. Livolsi
Nov 8 2015


Jesus longs to talk with his loved ones about his death, but that is a talk they do not want to have. Perhaps we might forgive his family and his friends for this, after all, Jesus was in the prime of his life, and when a man – a young man, my age – carries on and on about this wretched mortal coil and all, and being ready to meet his maker, one thinks it morbid and unseemly, one thinks maybe even that a screw has come loose. So when Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to die, Peter protests: ‘God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!’ Jesus invites his kin and closest companions into a conversation they show themselves too uncomfortable to have. Jesus offers them what is a precious gift – to share with another in the work of meaning-making, in the measuring out of days, in the weighing of decisions, in the wiping away of tears, in the gentle sifting of unrest and peace through which firmer resolve and truer knowing come to be; Jesus offers them what is a precious gift, and they refuse it, saying, ‘God forbid,’ saying, in essence, ‘Oh, Mom you aren’t going to die,’ or, ‘Dad, not at Thanksgiving dinner, eh?’ or ‘But Grandma, you are such a young 96,’ or ‘Honey, you’ve just got to hold on for this FDA trial.’

Jesus longs to talk with his loved ones about his death, but that is a talk they do not want to have. And it is not as if he sits down beside some stranger on the subway and says, ‘Do-not-resuscitate orders – what thinkest thou?’ He is among intimates, and, what is more, friends who share of the same faith. Their religion has left them stiff and nervous; for all the time they have spent hanging around Jesus – well, they can handle feeding the poor and fighting for justice, but when it comes to having feelings, sharing their own, or holding space for someone else’s, they seem ill prepared to put down the 10-foot pole that keeps at bay anyone who would see their guarded hearts in the state they really are in: that is, see them trembling at the thought of losing this one you love, see them scared, scared and unable or unwilling to explore that fear because being in touch with painful emotions will wreck you and seriously disrupt your life and who has time for that?, see them in denial and angry because you do not understand the cauldron of regrets and if-I-had-only’s, and I-wish-I-had’s boiling up inside.

My grandmother passed away a year ago this August, and it was not a good death. She had smoked two packs a day for fifty years and paid no mind to anyone’s protests. Even having developed a quite debilitating case of COPD, she was for a time too embarrassed to seek treatment or to so much as name her disease as such. When she eventually went on oxygen, but before it was that taking even a few steps would leave her out of breath, she refused to be seen in public with her tank in tow, and so she became more and more reclusive. She would not venture out to birthday parties or holiday dinners or allow that the festivities be brought to her. In whatever ways our family was and is (!) dysfunctional, papering over submerged hostility with a veneer of pleasantness was not our style. As an Italian, instead, you knew to ‘accidentally’ elbow the other person while at the antipasti platter, and as they struggle not to choke on the olive pit they have almost just inhaled, you blurt out your grievances for God and everybody to hear, and you both have at it without holding back. You yell a lot and there is a great catharsis and you kiss and make up. But even our tribe, even we – not one of whom ever had a thought we left unexpressed – even we could not and would not discuss the fact of Nana’s dying with any openness.

My grandmother wanted to move in with my aunt, but would never say so. My aunt did not want my grandmother to move in with her, but would never say so. After one of her especially bad bouts in the hospital, those in the family with power-of-attorney sold her condo and everything in it without consulting her, knowing full well that she would never have wished to go into a nursing home, but having plausible deniability because, again, none of us dared unleash the torrent of pain by talking about any of this. So in addition to feeling ashamed and alone, Nana now felt betrayed and all the more embittered. Everyone else experienced her as more and more curmudgeonly, mean, and emotionally taxing. And I have to say, for my part, there was no practicing what I preach. I was not a pastor seeing and addressing these dynamics with tenderness, nor was I even, as a Christian, spiritually attuned. I needed to say and could not say what she and what we all needed to say but could not say – some terrible, beautiful, faltering jumble of ‘I’m sorry,’ and ‘I forgive you,’ and ‘I love you,’ and ‘Goodbye.’ The parts of us all that were, at the end of the day, frightened animals — they never un-burrowed. Our souls never showed themselves, not until it was too late. Who knows, maybe though she was only a whisper of herself and laid there intubated and unresponsive, maybe yet there was some great unclenching of spirit, maybe there was a peace she felt when we were finally all together, maybe the honesty of sharing then, at long last, was palpable and healing in a way beyond our sensing.

Jesus, like so many, longs to talk with his loved ones about his death, but that is a talk they do not want to have. Jesus, like so many, wants to offer to his kin and to his closest companions what is a precious gift: and the gift is something more than can be quite contained within a will or an advanced directive – the gift is something that wills and advanced directives, as tools of discernment, empower one to give, insofar as they clarify and then channel our deepest intuitions about what counts, but the gift Jesus and so many want to offer is of an altogether different order than peace of mind, or making it easy on those you care for and who care for you by dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s and getting your ducks in a row. The gift Jesus, like so many, wants to offer, is an invitation to a sort of spiritual taking-stock, almost of a chewing on altogether, a chewing on of that old question – How is it with your soul? The gift Jesus, like so many, wants to offer, is akin to that T.S. Eliot line about having the experience, but missing the meaning. The gift Jesus, like so many, wants to offer, is an invitation to share in discovering shape and sense and story and meaning in the steady march of days. Jesus invites his loved ones to look upon his death, because he believes that death can shine light back on his life.

And this is a gift there is no such thing as being too young or too old to bestow – because to talk about meaning in the light of mortality, to talk about death just is to talk about all the days leading up to death; it is talk about the magnificence and the fragility of our bodies, it is talk about what God is teaching us about our own dignity and our own dependency, it is to talk about our favorite foods, and about the songs we sing in the shower, about the books we have read and read again and whether and how we shall live if we can not quite revel in those tastes and words. Talk of death is talk about loneliness, about fear, about limitations – about which ones we should break through and which ones we should bend to, it is talk about the forgiveness we ache to grant, about the reconciliation we must make. Talk about death is talk about gratitude and joy and blessing.

Jesus longs to talk with his loved ones about his death, because to talk about death just is to talk about life. To talk about death is to talk about life, it is to talk about the ones with whom we have shared our lives, it is to talk about what we have made of our lives, or dreamt to make of our lives, it is to talk about what we might have but did not make of our lives, it is to talk about what we have learned in our lives. For Jesus, and for so many, to talk of death is to talk of what is truest about ourselves: the sweet remembrances and the sad regrets, the passions and the pains, the tears we have shed, the love we have shared – to talk about our deaths is to talk about who we are, who we hope to be, how we want to live on, even when we live no longer. For Jesus, and for so many, to talk with his loved ones about his death, and to talk about the life his death casts light back upon, to talk with others in this way is ultimately to cast and to claim life not as something you lose, but as something you share, as something you give away.