Letter from Honduras: Once more, with feeling
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 26, 2012 - This time in St. Louis, I couldn’t even pretend it was a “visit.” The second funeral in four months, my big brother John in July, my little brother Bob in October, the third in three years (my sister Mary Anne in 2009), took its toll. Folks were very encouraging, “You guys are getting good at this,” in an ironic sort of way.
No, it was harder each time, this time all but impossible for my sisters Barb and Nancy and me, every decision postponed, every choice second-guessed, 'til more than two weeks had passed between Bob’s death and the funeral, friends and acquaintances wondering, “Did we miss it?” But, as I told the gracious gathering of about 60 or 70 at the service at Ambruster Chapel, “We needed every minute of this time to make it right, and your presence here today makes it perfect.”
The funeral did indeed provide “closure,” helping to mend our broken hearts, but clinging to the “survivors” afterward made my usual round of dinners, lunches and call-ins with friends undoable. I would not have been a very pleasant guest, anyway, I’m afraid.
I am not doubting my faith; just the opposite, I just needed so much more time to contemplate its mysteries. That’s what made the funeral so special. The reflections shared by Bob’s nephews, Jason and Dan; and family friend, Rory; a letter from jail from Bob’s son Nick; poems by Bob’s daughter Jenny; and a letter to God by Jenny’s 9-year-old daughter, Justyne; not to mention the Biblical readings, and the music (including “Stairway to Heaven”) -- all made for a very spiritual experience, an abundant dose of, yes, reality. Real faith, real hope, real love.
But I never seem to come to St. Louis for only one mourning. Fr. John Kavanaugh, S.J., 71, also died while I was there, from a tortuous blood illness traceable perhaps to his time with Mother Teresa in India or missionary work in Kenya, decades ago. My mentor since I first took his ethics class at Saint Louis University during the Kent State massacre, John taught generations of SLU undergraduates and med students. As a “philosopher,” realist, rationalist, he opened dialog with other scholars of any religion or no religion without depending on “God” for answers. But his faith was electric.
His Good Friday sermons propelled me to Honduras. In his first book, “Following Christ in a Consumer Society,” he issued this warning: “The Gospel presents an image of God which shatters most categories that both atheists and believers employ.” The book is still shattering in its relevance, but you don’t have to be a Christian to “follow” its values, namely, solidarity with the poor who are buried beneath The Bottom Line.
After writing his masterpiece, “Who Count as Persons?” John’s loyalty to the marginalized, from the unborn to the underpaid, from the person who is killed to the person who kills, left him without a political party to support; and, fittingly enough, he died the night before the recent presidential election (for which he planned a write-in), accompanied by a little choir of family and friends with “How Can I Keep from Singing?” His funeral, one day before my brother’s, filled the College Church to overflowing, a challenge to carry forward his legacy, that, with faith, our wounds can shelter all who suffer. (Listen to John’s last sermon, only seven minutes long but unforgettable!)
Despite his cerebral palsy, Teresa’s 18-year-old nephew Bryan, is definitely a person -- in fact, he’s a super-hero! When his hard-working mom and dad took their first vacation alone since Bryan was born, he stayed with Teresa, the same time I was there.
After a few rough days of homesickness, he settled into his work training program, boarding a special bus every morning. So we were a little band of super-heroes for a couple weeks or so. You see, Bryan calls himself “Flame-Thrower Boy” from the games he constantly plays; he calls Teresa “Water-Woman,” and me “Iron-Man” (!). And, if that doesn’t impress you, Bryan is pals with Justin Bieber!
As soon as Teresa’s next-door neighbor Hildur heard I was coming to St. Louis yet again with a heavy spirit, she started planning a bake sale. Originally from Germany, she has some wonderful recipes for cookies, and a happy attitude toward the cold weather.
“I’ll be right on the sidewalk -- outside! Why not?”
She set her date and put up posters around the neighborhood long before we had set our date for the funeral, and when they turned out to be the same day (Nov. 10), I was very sorry I wouldn’t be there to help, but I armed her with a copy of my “back story” from The Beacon, and the latest photobook. And that Saturday turned out to be gorgeous, a sunny, sweet, spring-like day! When we got back from the funeral, she hands me a wad of money. I counted it and practically fainted -- $185! And, man! you should have tasted those cookies!
I tried to visit Nick in jail, but the best they could do was promise a date after I would already be back in Honduras. I guess we never missed Nick more than when we all celebrated an early Thanksgiving on Nov. 18, hosted by Nancy’s daughter Myia and her husband, Geoff. This was a feast, even if our emotions were conflicted.
That same Sunday was election day in Honduras, and before we sat down to gorge ourselves, I kept calling Chemo to make sure he had voted. “I don’t want to vote.” You know, I sorta think he is reluctant to advertise his age, 18, embarrassed that he’s not further along in school and other mileposts. Finally, just before the polls closed, “OK, I voted!”
But I told him I wanted to see the purple ink stain on his little finger when I got back. And he did get his “revenge,” since he voted not as I told him to, for our neighbor Nelson, who is running for mayor, but for Kando, the present mayor, running for a second term. Not that it matters. This is just the primary, picking nominees. The general election is a year from now! So Kando and Nelson, from different parties, will face off then for real. Not that any voting matters in Honduras, where corruption dictates every move. But Nelson, virtually unique in that mix, is honest, honorable, and just. So we’ll see. I’ve got a year to get Chemo’s vote!
My first night back in Las Vegas -- Thanksgiving Day -- I found myself preaching at another funeral. Romelia, the same age as my brother Bob, was one of those precious spirits, a sweet soul who started talking in the middle of an imagined conversation, her eyes wide, as she stroked your arm and gripped your hand. I couldn’t believe it, even when I saw her lying stiff and flat in a simple pine box, her bright eyes closed forever. The most I could do was echo the Gospel reading, where Martha, whose brother has just died, confesses her faith in Jesus: “You are the Christ, who had to come into the world.” I had to come back to Las Vegas.