Where are the graduates seated? I whispered to the chaplain, once we were in our seats and the ceremony had begun. There were many different groups of people in many different kinds of vestments and I wanted to be sure not to fix my gaze on the wrong group.
He nodded slightly stage left. They're right there. They'll be right in front of you.
Okay, good. Thanks.
They were receiving their degrees, tangible evidence of their having worked hard on a specific set of requirements and succeeded at them. I was receiving a more fanciful one, it seemed to me -- an honorary doctorate bestows academic honors on achievements other than academic ones. I always thought I would earn a doctorate someday, probably, but I never did. I still feel, vaguely, that I ought to have done, and so I was a little embarrassed by my honorary doctorate. It seemed I had no right to it. Still, my diffidence about it, though real enough, was not sufficient to cause me to refuse it on grounds of my undeserving -- I was too flattered to do that.
But there was more in my heart than than just an awkward modesty warring with my pride. The beauty of the day, the beauty of the place, the happiness of the graduates -- it all reminded me painfully of another graduation just a week ago, at which the lovely daughter of my nephew and his wife received a magna cum laude degree in physics from Clemson University. Her hard work, amply rewarded. Happy, proud parents, happy proud grandparents, all smiles in pictures with the graduate. And then, two days later, an atom bomb fell on the family -- Samantha's been in a terrible accident. What do you mean? Where? What happened? How bad is it? What's going on?
Nothing good. Samantha never regained consciousness. That lively intellect, that curious spirit, that amazing girl -- she died with both her parents beside her, praying and holding her hands as she slipped from this world into the next.
All the funeral things. All the casseroles. All the calls. All the photographs. The unaccustomed suit, quickly purchased for her lanky younger brother, who looked so suddenly grown up in it. The surreal bustle of the days immediately following, with people coming and going, some people busy and other people standing around, not knowing what to do with themselves. Airports and taxicabs. Hotel rooms. Flowers. Teenagers and young adults, plunged into something too horrid and absurd for them to countenance. Some of them weeping. Some of them numb. Some of them laughing at a joke and the stopping themselves, their hands to their lips, horrified at themselves for laughing.
Oh, wrong! Injustice! What good is mathematics, anyway, if it can't come to our rescue here, if it can't help us us balance this equation better? Why is it that those of us who have had the chance to live in this glorious world cannot just quietly trade places with those taken from it too soon? Would that be such a terrible thing? I believe that many would volunteer -- I have asked many people this in the last few days, and many said they have thought the same thing. So you see, we have a consensus. I plan it out idly as we drive in the car: imagine the graceful switch, imagine lying down quietly, happy to see the dead return to live out their full term. It seems to me that it would work. It wouldn't be so hard. Why can we not just substitute one for another?
Oh, no reason. Just because.
And so I say to myself what I always say. Stay tuned. The dead don't live our lives anymore, but they live something. Some other way we can't know but can sense, sometimes -- only sometimes, though, because we're just not very good at sensing it, not here, where we only partially understand what it means that we live in Christ. In the early days, of course, you sense nothing but the yawning cavity of loss. What other people say about sensing the ongoing life of the dead may just roll off your back, or it may even strike you wrong and make you angry. So I don't always say a lot at first, unless I am asked point blank what I think happens to them. I mostly sit and listen, hold a hand, cry when tears come. Don't say much except in the sermon, if I am preaching at the funeral. Which I was not, not at this one.
I was preaching at a graduation. A graduation of people who, very soon, will be preaching at funerals. How very strange. They didn't know me, and I didn't know them. They didn't know what had just happened, and I didn't tell them, because this service was not about that. I just mentioned, as if in passing, that they would accompany people through their turning points, their graduations and their funerals. Mentioned it as if it were just a priestly thing every priest does. Which it is, of course.
But it is never generic when it happens. No matter who, and no matter when. Each one, from the old man whose death is a blessing to the young girl whose death is a fresh outrage.
The sad events of this week took over, and I was unable to devote much attention to my begging for AIDSWALK supporters -- so I have not met my goal of $5000 for AIDS work in New York and abroad. But I still intend to walk, and I have about $3000 in online donations and checks that have arrived in the mail. Thanks to all who have sponsored me in tomorrow's walk -- and know that there is still time to help me meet that goal. Visit my donation page at http://aidswalknewyork2010.kintera.org/faf/donorReg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=331281&supid=252293293.