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Monday, September 19, 2016

Death, Friendship and the Hand of God...

From the outside looking in, I couldn't help control the tears welling up in my eyes and involuntarily running down my face.

To see the visibly shaken woman and her daughters (about the same age as my own), hugging and comforting each other in their anguish, was a bit overwhelming.  I wept uncontrollably and many of those around me, did too.

As I sat several pews behind them at a special Mass, offered for their ailing husband and father, what struck me most were the hands of the mother; caressing, embracing and soothing her daughters.  They were like the hands of God the Father, comforting and loving His children, and so they were.

In his classic spiritual work, The Return of The Prodigal Son; A Story of Homecoming, Fr. Henri Nouwen describes those hands.  He wrote, "Gradually over the years, I have come to know those hands.  They have held me from the hour of my conception, they welcomed me at my birth, held me close to my mother's breast, fed me, and kept me warm.  They have protected me in times of danger and consoled me in times of grief.  They have waved me good-bye and always welcomed me back.  Those hands are God's hands.  They are also the hands of my parents, teachers, friends, healers, and all those whom God has given me to remind me how safely I am held."

The emotionally charged liturgy, like the hundreds of daily prayers, visits from family and friends and continuous messages of encouragement and support via text, email or social media, was but a respite in an otherwise draining and painful period of their lives.

A great friend; a better husband, father and son...
The woman's husband, named Pepe, a beloved man by most who knew him, was battling an aggressive form of cancer, which had consumed him in just two short months.  His condition had worsened, to the point where he wasn't eating and, with his body deteriorated by the deadly disease, the end appeared inevitable, despite the prayers, best intentions and desperate clings to hope.

A summer that began with great anticipation, joy and laughter, quickly spiraled downward into one of tears, pain and loss.

His daughter wrote on Facebook, "During the summer, on one of our family trips to the Florida Keys, Pepe had excruciating pains running through his leg, chest and lower back.  Once we returned home, Pepe went to visit many doctors who all said that he had severely pinched nerves.  What we thought was severely pinched nerves, turned out to be lung cancer metastasized in the bones.  It was a big slap in the face to all of us."

Shortly after the emotional Mass, about six hours later to be exact, Pepe succumbed to the cancer.

It's rattling how life can change so abruptly.

Aside from the effects on the family, for those of us, who are Pepe's contemporaries and friends, it is also difficult because it brings us face to face with our own mortality.

There's a Latin phrase that I like reminding myself of, momento mori, which means remember death. It's a prompt that we should live our lives knowing that we are here for just a brief time and every decision, word and action we take, should reflect that.       

If there is one thing that I will remember about Pepe is that he always lived life for the moment. Charismatic, charming and warm, I think what struck most people about him was his smile.  The man wore a constant smile on his face, no matter what personal issue he may have been going through.

He was a devoted husband, father and son, who had been caring for his elderly mom for many years, and, as the parish priest said at his funeral Mass, "He was a man who gave and gave.  He would give right out of his pocket, if he saw anyone in need, even if he was going through difficulties himself."

What Pepe most enjoyed was spending time with his family, antique cars, boating, traveling and living life, as if he understood it was fleeting.

He was also a man of great faith, who respected his Catholic beliefs so much that he abstained from receiving the Eucharist for many years because he didn't feel worthy (Then again, are any of us, worthy?).

Pepe attended the first men's retreat I led in November 2011, but, even before then, he was already a devout Catholic man.

He was a great friend to all.  I remember when I was going through a particularly difficult time at work a few years ago, and things looked bleak that Pepe came up to me one night and told me to persevere, keep doing my job and trust in God.  He told me he had gone through a similar experience but that things eventually get better and they did.

Still, like all of us, he had his share of pain and regrets.  There were issues, circumstances and relationships that bedeviled him.

I remember talking to him one night and encouraging him to put the past aside and to reconcile with God and the Church for the good of his wife and daughters.  He told me that he would.

God has a way of bringing back His lost sheep.

I'm not suggesting that he got sick for a purpose but, since God brings good out of evil, it did bring him back to the Eucharist. He was able to receive the sacraments of Anointing, Reconciliation and the Eucharist, leading up to his passing; the Viaticom, as our parish priest stated; God's food for the journey.

In fact the priest stated, "I have never seen a man know and love the Eucharist, as much as Pepe."

The prodigal son returned home to the Father, as the gospel reading at the emotional Mass for his recovery, stated.

There's a poignant line at the end of the movie, Meet Joe Black, that always resonates with me. It's when Bill Parish (Anthony Hopkins) turns to Joe Black (The Grimm Reaper played by Brad Pitt), as a celebration of Bill's birthday was underway, a band was playing, fireworks were going off and both men knew their time to leave had come, and says, "It's hard to let go isn't it?  Well, that's life.  What can I tell you?"

Knowing Pepe's zest for life, I'm sure, it must have been hard to let go.  But, this is a man who helped build a multi-million dollar company on nothing more than pure will, leadership, charisma and fearlessness.  So, I can almost say with certainty, that when the time came, he faced it with courage, grace and faith, or, to borrow a line from Blue Oyster Cult, he didn't fear the reaper and he took His hand...  

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