The Curse of Distance in This Vale of Tears

Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890), “The Burial of Christ”
Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890), “The Burial of Christ” (photo: Public Domain)

I got an early-morning heart-piercing email recently. It announced that my long and dear friend Derek had lost his wife the night before due to a bout of pneumonia that had drastically worsened in a matter of hours. He was away on business in San Francisco. His wife Heather was home with their two teenage boys in Surrey, British Columbia. She had suddenly gotten very sick and the boys took her to the emergency room. Derek got the news from the boys and changed his ticket to return home as quickly as he could.

While waiting for his flight at the airport, the doctor telephoned Derek informing him that his wife was gone.

Your boys call and tell you their mom has become ill. The next call you get, she is dead. All the oxygen goes out of your universe, and your entire body and soul are wracked with pain and disillusion. You are existentially all alone in the crowd of a bustling airport. Terribly alone. You are here and you need to be there. The curse of distance and its soul-crushing isolation and helplessness.

When I lost my mother unexpectedly some years ago, I was on a layover in the Cincinnati airport on my way home to see her, as she’d suddenly become quite ill. My wife called: “Glenn, your mom is gone.”

This sudden news was like a stab to the heart also. But she was my mother, not my wife, and she was much older and already ill. It didn’t come out of nowhere like Derek’s news. I was struck by how so very alone I felt in a place so crowded. Usually one is close to loved ones when they receive such news. Perhaps at least with coworkers who know you and love you. But in an airport, hours and thousands of miles from home?

Of course, it is weird to feel and even weirder to say, but I as I hung up from my wife, I wondered, as briefly as it was sincere, if losing your mother while in an airport earned you the right to ask a total stranger if you could share your pain with them. Perhaps they would be willing to hold your hand or even hold you for a bit. A forty-seven-year-old man wondering such things. But unexpected and bizarre feelings come to humans at unexpected and bizarre times. These feelings cannot really be judged as good or bad, because people like my friend who receive life-shattering news in an airport have a right to feel most anything at such a moment. They are not under one’s immediate control.

I did not ask anyone for a hug. I did not share my heart with anyone. I just sat down on the floor for a bit and then got up and ate a burrito at Qdoba. That’s what I did.

What did Derek do? At a precise location far away from where he was, half of his heart had stopped beating. An actual part of himself had stopped living. His two boys without their mother, wondering what to do next, grown up immediately in many ways. The wrenching curse of distance. As he told me later that day, it was the longest two hours of his life, slow-aching-second by slow-aching-second trying to close that geographical gap between himself, his wife’s body and his boys’ shattered souls. I thought about his thirty-minute drive to the hospital once he finally landed. Do you butt your way through customs? Is speeding or sneaking through red lights permissible at such a moment? Even that relatively small distance must have been torturous because his swiftness was now in his own hands. Even from the hospital parking lot to where his wife lay and his boys waited.

The curse of distance. Our common Christian faith has much to say about this because it is not an “other-worldly” faith, but deeply this-worldly.

Ever since our displacement from the Garden, we have never been in the right place, and each of our hearts are ordered to yearn deeply for it, whether we realize it or not. This is fundamental to our faith.

Consider the life of God Incarnate.

Was it not a torturous distance between Mary, Joseph and their young boy who was lost back in the Manhattan that was Jerusalem? The distance did not close for this mother and father for three days. The boy’s casual reply—that of course he was in his Father’s House—did little to erase the previous three days’ torture.

Consider the mystery of the Cross. Consider as well the Ascension. The Son’s mother rejoiced at the Resurrection in a way no one else really could. Her son was now alive and given back to her, the distance of death miraculously closed. But soon he was gone again, returned bodily to his heavenly Father as foreordained before the foundation of the world. But just as Derek lost his lovely wife Heather, and I lost my mother, a real mother’s real son was taken far away from her. She knew the goodness of where he had gone, and the destiny that demanded it, but he was still her boy, and hers was a mother’s heart.

The curse of distance. It is real and it is intensely painful. But the Christian story tells us that the distance is being closed and that the final reunion will restore every intimacy more real and wonderful than it ever was. Such is our Christian hope.