I was sitting on the bed in my grandma’s studio apartment. My mother and grandmother were on the fancy electronic couch with the motorized recliners and USB ports. We were a little cramped and rather warm because Grandma kept the temperature near 80 degrees.
Grandma was crying again.
“I keep thinking he’s going to walk through that door,” she said.
We’d only moved them into this senior living home a week prior, so I had literally only seen Grandpa walk through that door one time. It was the last time I saw him. He handed me twenty dollars and scoffed at my protest. We had been doing so much for him, and he needed to feel like he was contributing in some way.
In my mind he was still down in their ranch house outside Princeton, Illinois, puttering around amongst his tools in the pole building. Or he was still in their home in Cary, Illinois, sitting at the kitchen table with my little brother on his lap, teasing him with one of his little games.
But that would have been thirty years ago.
The minister called to get some information and talk through the service. My mother took the call—she, like her father, always needs to be doing something, so the past two days she walked around with a phone and notebook.
She answered a few questions about hymns and service order, then she turned to me and asked, “Did you want to do something for the eulogy?”
I hadn’t really thought about it. Was I still in shock, or was there some other reason that at that moment I came up blank? If anyone in the family was going to do it, it was me, but I had no answer.
The next morning, I went to a coffee shop and began to write, and as often happens, the words led me to ideas and thoughts and feelings I could not access without them.
I wanted to understand that sense that someone lives on within us. I knew the feeling that my grandfather might walk through the door would fade, but for those of us who loved him, something more powerful would remain.
When someone truly lives a life, they change the world. My grandfather was a cement mason; he literally helped craft the Chicago skyline.
But he did so much more. With nothing more than a few key values—family, loyalty, generosity, hard work—he crafted a life that was both fiercely self-reliant and profoundly interconnected. He walked firmly on the ground, made for himself whatever he wanted, and gave of whatever extra he had.
The Incarnation solemnizes and sacralizes such a life. It says the history books and monuments tell only slivers of the story, and perhaps not the most important slivers at that.
The Incarnation means we can say of a cement mason: Here was a man who walked on the earth and worked it with his hands and cared for the people who came his way—and the universe is changed because of it.
Some people live on because they made grooves in our brains, or part of our beings formed within their mold. Though we may not always think of them they are truly a part of us.
Surely this is a shadow of the life eternal in which we hope. We want the monuments, the plaques, the books—the physical artifacts that proclaim our name to the future—but ask Ozymandias if monuments are more important than the stamp only love can leave on a person’s soul.
The cynical materialist in me, the part of me that wars enviously against the believer, suggests that even memories are, in the last analysis, ephemeral and meaningless, but the believer only shrugs. He cannot not believe that that ghost of the deceased haunting my consciousness is as real as the pain in my twisted ankle.
I reread Donne’s Sonnet 10 with new eyes:
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so,
For those whom thou thinkst thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
Four-hundred years later they are still bold, defiant, Easter words. They are wonderful words to read of an Easter morning, celebrating the Resurrection, but they are also Good Friday words, words of comfort.
We enjoy sleep, says Donne, and what is death but a great slumber? And death is “slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men.” It’s an already/not yet poem. Prior to Christ’s return, death’s sting already loses its sharpness when considered in light of life.
The believer will never satisfy the cynic that there’s an afterlife, but the cynic cannot deny that the departed still exists in something like the way spirit exists, as both presence and absence, secret and known.
And when I stand in a room before my grandfather’s coffin with my brothers, parents, and grandmother, with my grandfather’s childhood friends from his old neighborhood in Chicago, with his old friends from the service station where he used to work on his truck, with guys from his old cement crew, I know that death, which seems the ultimate fact of life, has not in fact overcome life. For when we gather, though it be to grieve, in the very act we testify that love is greater than any loss.
One of Graham Greene’s characters reflects after a death:
Why is it that […] love seemed now to live and grow in spite of the final separation and the final silence—for how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for that love of his to continue? And to what end?
To what end, indeed. The work of love will remain unfinished until its source completes it, but if an Irish-Catholic cement mason can figure out how to do it, surely there is hope for us all.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Brad Fruhauff
Brad Fruhauff is a film buff, comics nerd, literature scholar, editor, and writer living in Evanston, Illinois. He is Senior Editor at Relief: A Christian Literary Review and a Writing and Communications Specialist at Trinity International University where he also serves as Contributing Editor for Sapientia. He has published poems, essays, and reviews in Books & Culture, catapult, Christianity and Literature, Englewood Review of Books, Every Day Poems, Not Yet Christmas: An Advent Reader, Rock & Sling, and in the newly released How to Write a Poem.