A Runner Dies

Everybody at the funeral parlor couldn’t believe Joe was dead. He was just 55 years old.

“For God’s sake,” said Susan, his wife, “he was the picture of health.” The circle of friends who surrounded her and had come to pay their respects nodded in agreement. They knew Joe from the gym and that he ran every day, took part in triathlons, lifted weights. “Hell,” Jerry said, “he even trained people. Look, they’re sitting over there in a group; they look devastated.”

This week Joe was running in Echo Park and his heart quit on him. The police told Susan that he probably died instantly. It was at daybreak, they suspected. He died instantly. And Susan couldn’t erase the image of him dropping like a paper weight to the stone path that ringed the park.

Some elderly women, residents of the nearby assisted living facility, dressed in matching pink track suits and white walking shoes, found him at about 10 a.m. At first, they thought the man they’d found was unconscious, perhaps he was a drunk and had fallen asleep in the park. After all, it was common in that section of town. But when they couldn’t rouse him, and they saw the color of his face, an ash-blue, they knew that he was dead.

The Catholic priest at the funeral home stood in front of Joe’s friends and relatives and spoke about heaven and angels and life beyond what ordinary people knew. In that place, there were families and friends together, he said. Everyone was shining, basking in the glory of Christ. Joe was there, and he was happy, he assured Susan.

But Susan somehow didn’t feel comforted by that. She missed Joe. Already, she worried about how she’d live a life alone after 30 years of constant companionship with Joe. She wanted to go up to the priest, now saying the “Lord’s Prayer,” and stop him and ask him to just sit with everybody and be quiet. But she didn’t know how she could do it politely. She wanted to rail against Joe’s death, his absence from her life — not picture him on a cloud with angels.

She knew that there’d soon come a time when she’d miss him in their bed. What would she do when she wanted to feel his body against hers? Who and what would help her through that?

A strange man approached her from behind and tapped her on her shoulder. She turned and saw that he was small and balding and was wearing thick, black eyeglasses — the kind Buddy Holly used to wear. He smiled and handed her a condolence card.

And there, while the priest spoke, promising everlasting life with Christ, Susan opened the card and read the following words: “Why should you be surprised by death? It happens everyday, and it’s been happening since the dawn of time. Death is a natural part of life. You are nothing special that you should be visited with death. But you are special because you feel so deeply. Embrace these feelings and your memories. Embrace your loss, too. Feel it all and accept it … and the pain will mix with the joy of your memories. And you will someday be at peace.”

At first, when Susan read these words, she bristled at the idea of a stranger telling her that Joe’s death was no big deal. But as she read the letter one, two, three more times, she began to understand something, feel something. It was unlike anything she’d felt before; this was a kind of knowing that she felt inside — and that was that she knew she’d be alright.

“Embrace your loss, too. Embrace all and accept it …” As Susan read these words again, she began to think that maybe thinking about Joe being gone and thinking about how lonely she felt … well, that wasn’t such a bad thing. Suddenly, it made sense to her that her grief would run its course.

There, in the room with Joe, the mums and daisies, with her friend’s and family milling about and speaking in hushed tones, Susan stared at the cross hanging over the coffin and felt the beginnings of peace.

Catholic in America

Incense hangs in the air in great clouds,
stealing into dark corners
of stained wood and marble floors.
I watch the casket roll by,
and memories take me, unwilling.
It was here I knelt on red velvet cushions and confessed my darkest sins
and the venial ones, too.
Sundays of pork pie hats, white gloves made obstacle courses on the benches.
My summer uniform: a red bow tie, seersucker pants, white bucks.
We begged to Christ in eternal agony for his love.
Back at the apartment above Auburndale Plumbing Supply, streams of aunts hovered around the stove, basting the roast, mashing potatoes.
They sang Irish ballads and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
The sour breath of Uncle Dennis, as he strained to kiss us,
made me fear whiskey.
His Lucky Strikes, the shiny metal lighter that made that clipping noise, got him through the war.
The talk was of Jack and Jackie, American saints.
A Catholic White House finally.
Uncles spat drops of Canadian Rye and talked of fishing trips, concrete jobs and the “blacks” down South.
“Jesus, would they just keep quiet?”
The word “Cuba” made them shudder.
On the living room wall, the Sacred Heart, blood tear dripping, made me wonder.
All these years in heaven, and Jesus was still sad.
Did he want us to be sad, too?