Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Grieving and Gratitude: A Thanksgiving Reflection

There is, perhaps, nobody less deserving of the excellent people with whom I have been allowed to surround myself in this life, but this sense, honest and not a false assertion of humility, is, I would guess, probably widely shared. Indeed, how many other friends of Peter Conner Greer and Martin Capodice must feel the same way? We are and were graced by their presence.

When I left for Asia in early February 2011, I knew that my favorite English high-school teacher was living with cancer and that the husband of my dear friend, who was, in his own right, my dear friend, was also living with cancer. Knowing that I might not be there for their last days was one of the hardest parts of leaving.

A month ago, the latter person, Martin Capodice, passed away and today I have learned that my English teacher, Peter Greer, took a turn for the worse on Thanksgiving. He will return home for hospice--a process that mercifully only lasted a couple days for my other long-suffering friend.

The hardest part of being far away, as I just reflected in a letter to the daughter of my English teacher, is that you must delegate the giving of kisses. I did not express to her the coexisting truth: these temporal works of mercy are not assignable. You cannot be there for Thanksgiving and Christmas with your family. You cannot be there for your godson's wedding or your friend's funeral. No amount of cards or phone calls or delegated embraces can substitute for the spiritual fruit of being there yourself in the flesh, but there is some hope that a message of gratitude, an expression of love will provide some warmth and strength to the one about whom you are concerned.

"I don't think I know him as well as you do, but I adore him--he's just lovely and warm, and always has been," wrote a classmate of mine just now about Peter. Her assessment in the latter part of this reflection mirrors my own, but the first part made me wonder how well I actually know him. Comparisons are odious, as my father has always said, and it is true, I think, that we all know people differently. There must be some standard of knowing somebody better than somebody else, but I don't know what it is.

All this being true, still the hardest part of Marty's passing for me--I walked around the hutongs of Beijing in a daze for a couple nights upon hearing the news--was the realization that I did not know him that well. We don't know anybody that well. Death is always a robbery, taking somebody before you were permitted enough time in this life to go one level deeper or, sometimes, to say things that you wanted to say. As his wife said to me, "I just feel so lucky that I did get the time I had with him."

Amen.