Current/Recent Reading List

12 January 2009

"The Absent Thing Alone is Real"

Before he died last week, my wife's uncle (as we were told at the funeral) expressed that he was ready for death, tired after many a good fight, and ready to "go home." Two days later the author and priest Richard John Neuhaus died. Today I opened up the latest, now-melancholy issue of First Things to find the last words Neuhaus would ever publish in his column there. As he revealed a new bout with cancer, he wrote, among other things, "Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live. If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight intimation of what is to be."

I have nothing profound tonight to add on the subject of death (have I ever?). Only to note that the conjunction of these two deaths last week, one of a relative and one of a favorite author and thinker, greatly impacted my household, in different ways, of course. I'll also note the bravery, mentioned above, of each as they faced the final hours, knowing all the while they must have felt, at moments, less than brave. Which is to say they were human.

My wife's uncle was - will continue to be - described as "larger than life", and for good reason. He was a Marine who survived the hell-hole of Okinawa, a public servant and political force in his home county for decades, and a man who never met a stranger, nor, apparently, an excuse to throw a charitable fundraiser (preferably involving barbecue) that he didn't like. I usually only saw him once a year at Christmas, so for the fifteen years I knew him my perspective was somewhat unique - rather than the public man, I almost always witnessed the private man, often when eating breakfast with him at his kitchen table before the larger family gathering had commenced. He had me by almost fifty years, but we found we had similar interests and similar viewpoints, and I considered him my friend. He was generous with his attention and always ready to swap stories, the old Southerner par excellence. And, he didn't leave this world without teaching my son something - he taught the Boy how to salute! I, in turn, salute a long life lived well.

As for Neuhaus, I simply would say that whether or not you agree with his political stances over the years (and they were strong and principled), even if you never had the pleasure of reading his monthly "The Public Square" column, you would be doing yourself a disservice by not seeking out two books of his that have consoled me numerous times through rough patches - even crises - of faith. Death on a Friday Afternoon should be read often, but most especially, I would recommend, during Lent. And then there is Neuhaus's remarkable, luminous As I Lay Dying, his account of being at death's doorstep during his first bout of cancer, including the humble account he gives of an astounding encounter he had while lying semi-conscious in his hospital room. I remember going out to buy this book right after I had read William Cullent Bryant's alluring, nihilistic poem "Thanatopsis", and suddenly feeling the cold fear that all there is to life is this world. Neuhaus's writing has consoled me in the face of such fears many times now.

For all the consolations, though, there is still the grief of this world, always present, easy to find every day. We feel our losses deeply, and that can never change. I love this quote from Joseph Bottum in his obituary of Neuhaus:

"Grief doesn't conjure up ghosts. Grief renders the world itself ghostly. The absent thing alone is real, and in comparison, all present things are pale, gray, and indistinct: a vague background to the sharp-edged portrait of what is gone."


Jimmy said...

I stand in awe of your writing, sir. A phenomenal tribute to two people who obviously were important to you.

Brad said...

Love that quote you ended with. Wonderful.