I didn’t know Uncle Johnny very well. He had a stroke before I was born, and lost his capacity to speak. He lived in the garage apartment on his sister’s property, and she lovingly cared for him.
To my sisters and me he was a curiosity, and we used to sit on the garage steps and watch him roll tobacco into white papers, making his own cigarettes, and sometimes his eyes would smile kindly at us. That, and the fact that he dragged his right leg when he walked are really all I remember about him….except for his funeral.
I was about ten when he died, and his funeral was the first one I had ever attended. I can still remember that it was a bright sunny day with clear blue skies. I was struck by the contrast of nature’s beauty and the sorrow of my aunt . I gathered with my family, and the few others in attendance and stood around the grave, covered with a green tarp, while the priest said prayers and sprinkled holy water.
My mind wandered off, trying to grasp that Uncle Johnny was gone forever from the earth. I thought of how the rest of us would go on with our lives, but he wouldn’t be there anymore. It seemed so impossible to my young mind. How could someone I had always known really be gone?
It was my first encounter with the reality of death, and I have never forgotten it. People die; life goes on. Then, most people forget about you, and sooner or later, everyone does.
The year after Uncle Johnny died, Aunt Anna died of leukemia at age twenty-seven. She left behind a husband and two babies. They buried her in her wedding dress, and everyone cried. But life went on. Her husband remarried a few years later; her children couldn’t even remember her.
I often return to these thoughts when someone “important” dies. Celebrity, accomplishments, power, wealth, all remain behind. Death is the great equalizer.
God tells us as much: What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. James 4:14
When Steve Jobs and Christopher Hitchens recently died within months of each other, I found myself pondering their lives….and their deaths. Jobs was an agnostic, and Hitchens, a militant atheist. Does anything else really matter now?
The media has long since moved on to more timely matters. The accolades of friends and admirers have descended to a whisper. Jobs and Hitchens, like Uncle Johnny, have left our world.
Where are they now? That is all that really matters for any of us.
This life we have been given….it is such a gift, such a grace, such an opportunity from Our Heavenly Father through Our Lord Jesus Christ! We have only this infinitesimal moment in time to love and thank Him on earth, to help others to know and love Him, to fall on our knees in prayer and worship, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to dry the tears of our neighbor, to give them food for their body or their soul, to offer a hand or a hug. Simply to love….God first, and then everyone without exception.
All of life can be reduced to that moment at life’s end, when God will gaze deeply into our souls and He Who is Truth will see us as we really are….and there will be no place to hide.
And who we have been in the world and what we have accomplished or the power and wealth we have accumulated will only serve to make us even more accountable for having used these gifts for loving God and neighbor.
Eternal Father, grant me the grace of cherishing every moment of my life as a gift to return to You, filled with whatever will most please Your Divine Heart. Let me not waste the precious gift of time this life on earth is. Draw me into Your Loving Gaze that I may always be united to You, always lost in You, even when my poor mind must be occupied with other duties. Call to me when the gleam of this world’s distractions captures my eye. Shelter me within Your Very Being until that day when nothing can ever separate me from You again. Grant that I may love you forever…
Uncle Johnny wasn’t rich or powerful, and hardly anyone knew him. But I wonder what God thought about smiling eyes and Uncle Johnny’s lesson.