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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Meeting Joe Black During Christmas...

Joe Black with Bill Parish...
As everyone knows, one of the certainties of life is that from the time we are born, we are on a progressive (or regressive if you prefer to call it) collision course with death.

And, as often happens, it strikes at the most inopportune time.  Take the man in the coffee shop (Brad Pitt) in one of my new favorite movies, since I saw it for the first time recently, Meet Joe Black (yes, I shed a few tears)He gets a new job, moves to a new city and just meets probably the girl of his dreams.  The next thing you know, as he is pining over her and contemplating whether to run after her, following their chance meeting, and having both admitted to liking each other very much before going their separate ways, without exchanging numbers, or even names, he gets plowed over by two cars as he is standing in the street (talk about a collision course with death!).

Yet, this abrupt finality, albeit with a less attractive Grim Reaper than Joe Black, happens every day, in different ways, in different parts of the world and different circumstances to thousands of people.  It's the end of the road, regardles of whether you're partial to all the end of the world theories or not.  As everyone knows, and to paraphrase Ben Franklin, the only sure things in life are death and taxes (and hopefully this year, not death by taxes!). 

Even so, for those of us who believe in everlasting life, death is the passing from the temporal to the eternal or, as I heard a priest once put it, it's like the birth of a child. 

He said that when a baby is born, he or she goes from the comfort and security of everything they have ever known in their mother's womb into a new, unknown and unimaginable realm.  In fact, he elaborated, going through the traumatic experience of the birth canal, may appear to a baby like they are dying and, much like us in death, they may even kick and fight the inevitable.  Instead, they are being born to a new life; a new reality.

Hence, death is not the ending, but the beginning, or as the One who sat on the throne (Christ) says in John's vision, "Behold, I make all things new."

Of course, the infinite is very difficult to fully understand with our limited minds (no matter how brilliant we may think we are!).  But, despite our deficiencies, it's something most of us seem to naturally hold on to, especially after the death of a loved one.

As many wise men have said in different ways through the ages, it's because Heaven is the fulfillment of the deepest longing within the human heart.

For my family, that inopportune time came three days before Christmas.  Two years ago, at about the same time, my father's brother passed away.  This past December, it was one of my mother's aunts who, after several months of battling various ailments and hospitalizations, finally succumbed to the eternal rest (hopefully in her case, it came in the form of Joe Black).

I take the liberty of making light, despite the damper her death put on an otherwise joyous time of the year for my family, because she lived a mostly happy and full life (and knowing her cheerful and gregarious spirit, I think she would prefer to be remembered on a happy note).  She was 82.

She leaves behind her lifelong husband, a daughter, two sons, five grand children and seven great grand children.

Now, it's difficult to lose someone we love at any time, whether we expect it or not.  But, it may be more difficult during the Christmas season, especially knowing how much my great aunt loved and cherished Noche Buena, Christmas and family reunions.
While growing up, I remember many Christmas Eve's at her townhouse in Hialeah.  She was always the life of the party; laughing, telling anecdotes of childhood mischief and family memories and making sure everyone, including the youngest ones in the family, was having a good time. 

I have wonderful memories of that small home that would get so packed with grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even friends that we would be all over each other and spread into every nook and cranny on the ground floor, the backyard, upstairs bedrooms and the front parking area.  But, despite our tight quarters, it was always an amazing time. 

In fact, reflecting on her death, after my cousins decided to hold off on her wake and memorial Mass until after Christmas, because she loved Noche Buena so much, I couldn't help but think about the wonderful Noche Buena she was going to spend in Heaven with her parents, two sons (who passed away from different illnesses), an older sister (my grandmother) and her husband (my grandad), two older brothers and a younger one, and several other relatives, including a great nephew, a sister-in-law and more.  It must have been a great celebration, akin to those we had in that small townhouse in Hialeah (although, I'd like to think that Heaven is a notch above Hialeah!).

I will always also remember my great aunt for her heart.  She had a bigger than life smile, warmth and gentleness about her and was one of the most loving and giving people I knew, sometimes to a fault.  She was the kind of woman that would always make you feel welcomed, even if you were a stranger, and would give you the clothes off her back, if you needed them; a true example of the Beatitudes.

When I was just a kid, she and my great uncle would fly down from Chicago, while the rest of her family drove down, and they would always take my younger brother and me to stay at their hotel and catered to us, while we waited for the rest of their family to arrive.  I will always cherish those memories.

On the bright side, her wake was bitter sweet.  It gave our family, including cousins, aunts and uncles, from as far as Chicago, and my brother, who happened to be visiting, a chance to be reunited like we used to, despite the somber occasion, before jobs, families, distance and responsibilities got in the way. 

The older generation made a lot more effort to keep the family ties together, but times like these make us remember how it used to be and how it should be.  I'm sure my great aunt was smiling in Heaven to see us together.

As the priest stated during her funeral Mass, as the Church, which is the mystical Body of Christ, those on earth, those in Heaven and those on the way, we are all united in communion, through the Eucharist, and when we pray at Mass, especially the Lord's Prayer, after the consecration, we can be sure that our loved ones, including my aunt, are praying with and for us at that same moment.  It was a comforting thought amidst the sorrow during her final farewell.

One of my cousins from Chicago was heartbroken when he heard her eldest son describe her passing.  He said that as she took her final breath, as both he and his sister approached her hospital bed, my aunt closed her eyes for the last time and a single tear ran down her cheek.

As Bill Parish tells Joe Black at the end of the movie, as both men looked at the celebration underway and knew their time had come to leave this world, "It's hard to let go isn't it?  Well, that's life.  What can I tell you?"

I'm sure it's hard to leave, but, while, until we are reunited again, we will never know whether my aunt's tear was from attachment or shear joy, I'm sure the loss is always harder for those of us who stay behind.

If a person is measured by the love they give, the lives they influence and the people who will forever hold them deep in their hearts, long after they are gone, then I know my great aunt has already heard the words that we all long to hear one day, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

Farewell, Tia Chela; until we meet again...

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