Friday, April 01, 2005

And be gathered to your family… John Paul II and Terri Schiavo

Death is the theme of the week.

Terri Schiavo died. John Paul II is dying. I hope he lives. I am not a Catholic but he is still my Pope. Maybe the only Pope I will ever be able to say that about. I pray for him.

Death is a messy thing. We are usually able to close our eyes to the end of life, pretending it is in the far future for ourselves and for others we care about, but for the last few weeks all of the dirty details of death have been paraded in our daily headlines. First in the endless hand wringing over the issues surrounding a poor woman who will only be remembered for how she died and then in the final illness and long remembrances of one of the few humans of the 20th Century that will still be talked about in the 22nd Century by school children, not just history majors.

I have been meaning to write something about Terri Schiavo’s slow death for some time, about the process of death, not the process of politics, but I cringe, like most people, at the thought of looking death in the face so I have been conveniently finding reasons to put off writing these words.

I have been lucky in life for nearly a decade. I have not had to bury anyone. But before this period, I had a season of death come to pass where in a matter of months I buried both of my maternal grandparents, my maternal great-grandmother and I almost had to bury my father due to cancer. In the latter case, I had the gut-churning, cross country flight where my father had been given 36 hours to live and my plane was not scheduled to land until the 40th hour of this countdown.

So it has been some time since I have had to deal with death, but with all of the media coverage of these two's emotionally charged last days, we all have been, to varying degrees, dealing with these difficult emotions. Picturing ourselves as Terri’s parents, picturing ourselves as Terri’s husband…

I can imagine the unbearable pain of watching my wife laying in bed, dead to the world for years, decades, and just wanting to find a way to end the suffering for the both of us, freeing each of us to continue on the next steps of the journey. I can also imagine my child laying there in that condition and I can imagine finding comfort for myself, every day, in being able to feel the warmth of my child's living skin. Being able to hold him and to care for him, doing all of the little things that matter for him, loving him and making sure that in every way possible he knew he was loved, even if it was just in my imagination, even if his consciousness was gone forever from the world. Could I replace this warm embrace this with the hard, damp stone of a marble monument drying its dew in the pale light of a cold spring morning?

I do not think I could choose the latter. I can say with certainty, that if I was in Terri’s position, let me go… Let me go… Once all hope has faded, let me go. But could I, with the same prognosis, let my child go? I do not think I could.

And that is why, when my sons come of age, I do not want to be the one to make this decision. And if they have someone in their life willing to take charge of this, out of love, out of hope, I hope they can and I hope I will let them do it. Because I am biased. Because I am too weak.

Because we are not supposed to bury our children, because they are supposed to bury us, I should not be the one in charge of choosing the date of the funeral.

For you shall see the land before you; but you shall not go there...

"This evening or this night, Christ opens the door to the pope"
-Angelo Comastri, the pope's vicar general for Vatican City

There is a lot of brutality in Catholic history but Karol Wojtyla was not afraid to confront it. The brutality Pope John Paul II saw in Poland during the Second World War was even more horrifying, and he was not afraid to confront it. I heard something on the radio today where someone told him that the Soviet/Western cold war would last for 400 years, and he said no. And he put his faith into action and he did everything in his considerable power to stop it. He put his faith into action and used the church, as he could, to stop war, period, as he could. But he couldn’t, and he will surely die before we figure it out as a species and end this madness forever.

He was the first Pope to attempt to reconcile the emotional politics and grievances separating and polarizing the three great monotheistic faiths. For this, even more than his role in ending my childhood nightmares of a Soviet/Western Armageddon, he is my Pope.

Today he accepted the end. He decided to stay in his home, his apartment overlooking the vigil for him in St Peter's Square, instead of being returned to the hospital. Before he fell asleep tonight, he listened to a reading of Jesus’ final days. Once saved by Mary, he turns to the Son at the end.

A gentle morning, God willing, or a peaceful journey… The prayers of the world, reaching far beyond the Church, are with you. And that is why you will always matter.

I can only hope that the Cardinals, when the time comes, look more for a leader who will follow the path blazed by John Paul II and not pander to the politics of demographics. The Catholic Church needs a leader with the vision of the current Pope. Unfortunately, most of the talk has been about Italians and Latin Americans. To me, this debate tarnishes the legacy of John Paul II before he is even buried. Before he has even passed on and before he has even lost his final consciousness. Be sure, he is aware of this debate and this is a shame.

The succession should be based on vision and faith. It needs to be. The work has only started, the path ahead is a long one and the world needs all of the help it can get navigating the ethics of these optimistic, but dangerous, times.

As of now, the shutters are still open... Rest well, Karol Wojtyla, tonight and forever.

UPDATE: April 6, 2005 - 5:17 AM

Signs and portents

This is a little creepy, I just saw it this morning.

Boost for superstitious: Sun to darken on day of Pope's funeral

Almost as creepy as the fact that I was shooting pictures of graves in a Catholic Cemetary when the Pope died.