When William Shakespeare - whom, I am learning, is a distant ancestor of my wife's - wrote, "A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March" (Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2, 19), he was setting up the backdrop for the Roman Emperor's assassination which took place on March 15, 44 BCE. It would seem in that particular setting, March that year was a rather busy and fateful month.
For me, some twenty and a half centuries later, this particular March has been personally busy and fateful as well. A week ago I related here that my wife's 83-year-old uncle passed away, and all that we as a family went through to pay our respects and mourn his loss. The next morning (this past Monday) we learned of the death of her brother-in-law, of cancer, at the more youthful age of 44.
The first thought was whether or not any of us would attend services for him. He lived over two hours away from us, and we had to consider the number of potential (or lack of) restroom stops we might have to make. The trip out there would be during the day, but the return trip would be at night, with fewer options as far as being able to stop. Then there was the fact that he was brother-in-law through a divorced marriage. But in her great wisdom, my wife reminded us both that we are godparents to two of his three children from that marriage; they would definitely appreciate having family around, and it was very unlikely that anyone else would be able to make the trip, especially on a weeknight and so soon after the last family gathering. So we agreed that I would go.
Sure enough, I met up with my sister-in-law and her two sons, as well as her present husband, who was about as lost in the room as I. We spent a good deal of time keeping each other company. Having lived out there a number of years, my sister-in-law and her boys had plenty of folks to talk to. A lot of people turned out for the visitation and the memorial service; so many that the funeral director had to bring out more chairs to seat everyone.
I had not necessarily known my brother-in-law to be all that much of a church-going man. My godchildren were baptized at a Catholic church in Chicago one summer when he was working there. (He worked for a traveling carnival back then and must have worked some mojo with the pastor at the time.) His mother and aunts were also Catholic. Toward the end of his life, my brother-in-law (or at least his second wife) was attending an evangelical church in the area, so the pastor there was going to lead the service, while his aunts would lead the Rosary later. Nobody left between the two rites of prayer.
It was weird listening to the pastor speak of what a good, caring person my brother-in-law had been, noting in my mind that he had, after all, deserted his first marriage, leaving his first wife and their three children in a rather bad way. And from all my upbringing and education in the Catholic faith, I know he must answer to God for that, with whatever consequences are deemed fitting. Still, to see how the boys and their mother accepted this, and spoke as did others about how the pain and suffering of his last days was now gone, reminded me that no matter what happened in life, the best thing anyone can do is to put aside whatever ill feelings we might have and pray for the repose of his soul.
I thought of that during the long drive home. I have many occasions where I am ministering to the family of someone who has died, none of whom I really know. It is easy enough to pray for them because I don't know the background, and it is not important that I know. When the scene shifts as it will more and more to people with whom I am related or colleagues of mine, I really have to lay down all thoughts of the things I knew about the person, and commend this soul to God. All of us struggle and stumble through life. I think I can apply that across the board, if you will. In the end, where it really matters, is where I hope I can see forgiveness and mercy. It was clear that on this cold March evening, the two were found in this out-of-the way place. I pray not to lose sight of this as life somehow gets back to its regular patterns.