Charley drove a Lumina. It was the kind of car, he once quipped, that Jesus would drive. “Because He is the Light of the world,” he said. Charley was my oldest brother. He and his wife, Barbara, were driving that Lumina on Christmas Day, with their youngest son, Ivan, 20, in the backseat. It was the feast of the coming of the Light into the world.
They spent the morning at their church, a Catholic church in the Byzantine rite that had sprung up in North Carolina as more Catholics migrated to the state in the 1980s. Charley loved the church and its Orthodox liturgy so much that a vocation to the diaconate grew in him.
The pastor told us that one of the last things Charley did after serving on Christmas morning was to set aside Communion for a woman who could not make it to Divine Liturgy that day.
Then he and Barbara set out for a Christmas gathering at their eldest daughter’s house. No doubt the melodies of the liturgy echoed in their heads. Perhaps their minds continued pondering the mysteries of the Incarnation.
The day was a rainy one. Soon after they merged onto a highway east of Raleigh, something happened that is the kind of thing that makes us think things like, “If only they had spent more time at the coffee hour” or “If only they hadn’t stopped for gas.”
But they left when they did, and whatever speed they drove and whatever stops they had to make put them in that spot at that time — when a young man driving an SUV in the westbound lane hit a wet patch and hydroplaned. It was a spot where a truck had broken through the wire guardrails two months earlier. The rails had never been fixed, and the SUV came at the Lumina like a missile.
Emergency teams did what they could, but they could not save Barbara and Ivan. They managed to keep Charley alive, but there was bleeding deep in the brain, in the basal ganglia, an area that acts as a kind of switchboard controlling communication with other parts of the body.
He was in a coma. His doctors felt that if he survived, the best possible outcome would be complete dependency on caregivers for the rest of his life, with paralysis on one side of his body and an inability to speak.
My wife and I prepared to leave our home in the Northeast, where Christmas lights that had added color to darkened streets now went dark. Into our lives came a symbol — but more than a symbol — of another season: the Cross. A bright star lit the fields around Bethlehem when Christ was born. Darkness covered the earth when he died.
As we drove down Interstate 95, two thoughts kept running through my mind. One was that God allows things like this to happen, but he won’t let us walk through it alone. He’s walking next to us.
Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we’re walking next to him, as he drags his cross up a hill outside Jerusalem.
The other thought was a line from the Bible: “A people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” That reference to the coming of Christ is cemented into my head from countless hearings of Handel’s “Messiah.”
Charley was in love with light. He was one of the most logical persons I’ve known, figuring out a problem in a methodical way and seeking clarity amid confusion. He was able to shed light when we sought advice.
As a landscape architect, he was conscious of the way the natural light would fall on a particular setting at different times of the day and various seasons of the year. He built a sunroom onto the back of his house with long windows that would allow someone to look out at the garden as if he were viewing a painting through a frame. He was an early riser and must have sat there many a morning enjoying the growing light of dawn.
As a young man he built a telescope, probably after reading a how-to in Popular Science. He was fascinated with constellations and sunspots and the aurora borealis, and must have marveled when he thought of the multitudes of light years that stood between the stars and us.
But he knew that there was an Infinity even greater than all that.
His prayer life and his studies for the diaconate — and his ongoing spiritual reading — had divine light as their focus, that illumination that is perhaps a foretaste of the day when we will gaze upon God, the Ineffable Light.
Now Charley entered into a kind of darkness, unable to speak to us. His eyes were unclear and glazed over. He occasionally tried to look around the room and at us. What was he thinking? Could he comprehend? Did he know who we were? Did he recognize our voices? Did he understand what we were telling him?
Now that I ponder those questions, it seems to me that we were the ones who were in darkness — because we had so many unanswered questions. Would he live? What exactly was his condition? What would happen to him? Was he feeling anxiety because he couldn’t communicate with us?
Or was he already being comforted in contemplating a light we could not see?
He died nine days after the accident, still in the season of that feast of light. We went back to his house to visit with my nephew and two nieces — three young people who had just lost half their family. Charley and Barbara’s life was everywhere you looked — photos on the wall, leftovers in the freezer that Barbara had made only days earlier, Ivan’s motorcycle in the sunroom, a home office with unfinished landscape designs on Charley’s drafting board.
The only thing that wasn’t there was the car that “Jesus would have driven” — the Lumina. But there was something else.
Barbara’s ancestors were Ukrainian, and several years back she asked Charley to help her revive a tradition from the old country: the Advent star. And so he crafted a wooden model of a star that could be illuminated and fixed it onto a pole. Each night during Advent, he and Barbara would move that star closer to the house, symbolizing the increasing proximity of the Light of the world in our darkened lives.
I don’t know if that star is still out there, hovering above the place where Barbara now surely would be cultivating garlic and basil. Charley and Barbara now would be in the midst of Great Lent, abstaining from meat, fasting, praying, spending Wednesday evenings at the church for the liturgy of the pre-sanctified gifts and the lamp lighting at vespers, all the while enjoying the lengthening of the days.
Their spiritual discipline and quieting of their busy lives would let a greater “amount” of light in, even as they contemplated a very “dark” event in history — the handing over of Jesus in the black of night, the darkness of betrayal and abandonment, of suffering and torture and death, the fear and sadness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
But this year, their Calvary took place during their Bethlehem. Darkness covered their feast of light.
I like to think that Advent star is still hanging over their garden, even during Holy Week. Even if it has been taken down, it’s still there in my memory.
A people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. But the light wasn’t extinguished after the Holy Family picked up and moved on from Bethlehem.
What appears to us as darkness on Calvary is the sacrifice that, if we allow it, will lead us to unending light.
John Burger is the
Register’s news editor.