“Dad, can I go visit Mr. de Laureal?” inquires Ari, my 6-year-old son.
Having heard for some time now that our 76-year-old friend David Michel de Laureal is dying of terminal cancer, Ari finally musters the courage to stare death in the face.
I am torn. Generally speaking, as Americans we prefer not to speak of death or even think about it, let alone encounter it face-to-face. Would it be best to avoid the subject until he gets older? On the other hand, sometimes we complicate things as adults: Might it be a life lesson on the vanity of this world and the hope of the Resurrection, lessons I could never fully explain through books or abstract intellectual explanations? Would the visit scare him and compromise his innocence or form his conscience and strengthen his personality?
As I struggle internally, a thought from my education reverberates: Aquinas’ fervent belief that the human intellect does not have direct access to Ideas as they exist in the mind of God, and that only man’s physical observations can activate potential understanding of things. Accordingly, to see and encounter death with the eyes of the head and heart might allow this 6-year-old a penetrating and educational glimpse into this mysterious reality.
Working with college students the past five years as they travel Europe, I have noticed the power in experiencing reality through the senses along with the intellect. When students venture underneath St. Peter’s Basilica to the necropolis of the dead to stand at the tomb of St. Peter, all of a sudden the beauty and truth of the living tradition of faith becomes tangible. Moreover, as students stand under the dome of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, its Gothic ceiling invites them to feel the transcendence of God in a personal way. They often walk out the doors with a newfound piety and reverence.
Deciding to visit, Ari and I make our way to the hospital. Ari’s chipper, congenial personality has tempered itself to the solemnity of the meeting as we park the car and climb the stairs to Mr. de Laureal’s room. As the patient rests on his hospital bed with numerous tubes attached and paralyzed legs, Ari’s eyes meet those of this suffering servant of God. Initially his face flushes crimson, and he steps back a pace or two in trepidation. Eventually he manages a subdued but guileless, “Hi, nice to see you, Mr. de Laureal.”
Mr. de Laureal, in his quintessential lively manner, musters a smile and offers some words of wisdom: “Hey, pal, good to see you too. You listen to your father and mother; do whatever they tell you. When they say jump, you say, ‘How far?’”
Ari nods, and eventually we bid farewell so he can rest.
Back in the car, Ari exclaims, “Dad, he was so thin! Is he going to be okay?” I don’t know how to answer, but as our chaplain Father Ron says, “God has carried him this far; he isn’t going to let him fall now.” He seems disturbed as it appears death has the final say.
A few days later, we receive the news that Mr. de Laureal has passed into eternal life surrounded by friends, family and a priest — not a bad way to go.
At dusk later that week, we go as a family to visit Mr. de Laureal as he lies in the cemetery chapel. Offering prayers on his behalf, we silently enter with bowed heads. Our 3-year-old Dominic inquires, “Where is Mr. de Laureal?” Big brother Ari quickly shatters the stasis: “His body is in there, but his soul is in heaven.”
Yes, death does not have the final word; hope in the Resurrection was ultimately the lesson our 6-year-old took away from his encounter with death. As I look into his eyes, I can’t help recall the poet John Donne’s apt words:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not …
Why swellest thou then
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shall die.
The lesson continues as we gaze around the coffin: The carved crucifix on the back wall of the chapel — and on the top of the coffin — is a reminder that life is ephemeral, that it is passing away. The outstretched arms of Christ encompassing the coffin are a further call to love and a prompting to savor this life that passes all too quickly.
As we prepare to leave the cemetery, there is a host of flickering candles and lanterns surrounding the graves of local kinfolk. Ari uses his flashlight to inspect the tombstones and eventually comes to the realization that all these people have died but at the same time will rise again: “Dominic, it’s a happy/sad thing; these people are now with Jesus.”
In the end, Ari accepts that “Death is sad, but it’s not all sad” as he acknowledges to his younger brother death’s power, but also its limitations. Connecting sorrow and joy, death and life, his thoughts echo the Paschal troparion of the Byzantine liturgy:
Christ is risen from the dead,
By death he conquered death,
And to those in the graves
He granted life!
Aquinas was right: Through the whole experience — the hospital bed, tubes, paralyzed legs, Mr. de Laureal’s humor and smile, the coffin, outstretched crucifix, the prayers and candles — there was the reminder that “the tears of things” are a real and unavoidable element of life. But these signs also reveal that suffering does not have the final word.
As the candlelight of the cemetery dispelled the darkness and recalled the hope of the light of Christ to our two young boys, so too Dante affirmed after making his way through hell, purgatory and eventually heaven, “the love that moves the sun and other stars” will meet us and greet the faithful into eternal life.
Donne was right too: Death be not proud. Mr. de Laureal — through his life and heroic death — taught our boys that, and for this I’m grateful.
Mark Kalpakgian writes from Gaming, Austria.