This morning, I went to the funeral of a 45-year-old woman. She was a wife, a mother, a best friend, a PTO leader, a community activist, and a beautiful person. The church was standing room only, filled with people whose lives she touched – either every day or tangentially. There was not a dry eye there.
The service was a typical Catholic mass. All the expected parts were there. But I also found something unexpected.
I went to the church with a friend (don’t we all need friends in times like this?). Although we arrived more than half an hour early, there were very few seats open. As we discussed just standing in the back, the priest announced that there were, in fact, a number of open seats in the front. Of course there were. No one likes to sit in the front. But, familiar with the length of a Catholic mass, my friend and I abandoned our decision to “just stand” and made our way forward. The front pew was – sure enough – wide open. Granted, it was a side pew (the seating was sort of in the shape of an octagon around the altar), but nonetheless, there we were. Right in the front.
Our unobstructed view soon revealed two things for us:
1. The faces of the congregation all around us were clearly visible; and
2. That included the faces of immediate family: a husband and three grieving children.
I found myself unable to look away from them. The children sobbed on and off throughout the mass… sometimes prompted by obvious moments of reflection, and sometimes from what appeared to be a more private memory of their mom. But their dad stood stoic, strong and unshaken. He was a beacon for them. He held his son’s hand for almost the entire mass. And when his daughters broke into tears, he pulled them into him as they nuzzled their heads into his chest. He looked ahead, a blank face with eyes often diverted to the floor. One thought occurred to me – and sticks with me still. This man not only has to grieve the loss of his wife – his best friend, but he has to watch his children grieve. And I’m guessing that at some point (probably many times a day), he has to try to find words to help usher them through their grief while band-aiding his own. In the next day, the next week, the next year, he will be called upon to demonstrate character…to be stronger, better, wiser than he ever dreamed.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Character develops itself in the stream of life.” But, does it take death for us to truly realize a person’s fortitude? What’s likely is that we don’t really think about it until death comes. We go along with our own lives and sometimes even take for granted the kindness, generosity, and selflessness of others.
But I have to wonder. If we would more often choose the front seat – the one with the unobstructed view – what would we see? My guess is that we would see beacons of character rising all around us, beckoning each of us to be greater than we ever thought we could.
(In memory of Jennifer Stagnaro)