Give Death Its Due

A few hours ago, a friend called me from her job at a clinic downtown. She was deeply shaken and in tears. A mother had come in to use some of the exercise equipment for her therapy and had brought her little three-year-old boy in with her. While her back was turned (it only takes a moment) her child somehow managed to get his head and neck wedged into the machinery of a mechanical bed and to trigger the mechanism so that it crushed him. She said you could hear the helpless mother screaming all over the building, struggling to free him. The clinic staff rushed in from everywhere and managed to get him out.

But it was too late. He was aspirating blood and, a few minutes after my friend called us, she called back with the horrible news: the boy was dead. She and the rest of the staff are in shock. She just left our house, numb. We stand around, feeling useless and helpless, saying stupid things like, “Make yourself a nice bowl of chicken noodle soup.” When she’s gone we feel like crying again. We think of that poor mother and her screams and busy ourselves quickly to push the thought out of our minds.

It’s tempting to try to make sense of such things—to do something. We rush to make some sort of judgment about something or other. The atheist latches on to it as another chance to rail at the non-existence (and heartless brutality) of God. The pious person tries to rush on to “He’s with the angels now”. Practical people start analyzing the clinic environment to see how the technology can be improved so it never happens again. Litigious types start looking around for who’s to blame and who to sue. But it all seems to come from the same root: We can’t stand the notion of simply looking the horror in the eye. We all get busy—somehow—in order to bat away the blank horror of it in panic. Like Job, we ask “Why?” and the heavens are brass.

I don’t have any answers. There are certain things I cling to like lifelines. Christ Jesus and him crucified. “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” Our Lady of Sorrows, crying her guts out over her Son killed by the accumulated sin, idiocy, and chaos of the whole world. Jesus himself, crying and angry at the tomb of Lazarus. Angry? Yes. When Scripture tells us that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled”, the Greek really means something more like “profoundly angry”. Jesus is angry at death, angry at this (literally) God-damned killer of friends, of children, of everybody we know and love. He hates death and did not make it.

I cling to the fact that Jesus is the enemy of death. He approaches the tomb of Lazarus feeling all the anger of the world over this ancient enemy. He doesn’t offer a treatise on the problem of evil. He offers a rolled up sleeve, a bare muscled arm punctuated by a bare fist clenched and prepared to land a smashmouth punch in the face to death.

I hang on to that as I feel the wind off the scythe that swung so close to my loved ones. Because, of course, at the end of the day, I can’t protect them from death completely any more than that poor mother could. Do what I will, the world bristles with danger and something, somewhere, is going to succeed in killing everybody I love. It may come tomorrow or in eighty years, but come it shall.

And then you think, “Stop thinking about you! Somebody lost their precious little boy today! Pray for them, you morbid dolt!” So you try to pray but no words come beyond the utterly banal. So on your way to do your evening errands, you start praying the Rosary. That’s a prayer that can say better what you are trying to say. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

It’ll do till the storm is over. Deliver us from evil, Father.

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