I wasn’t there the morning that my sister died, that cold, wet February morning. I have pieced together the scene over the years, partly from the stories of those who witnessed it, partly from my own maturity. Although records will show that my sister was the only one to die in the terrible accident, four people died that day, bodies strewn about the highway, next to a crushed and twisted car that, minutes before, carried part of a family, my mother and father, my brother and my sister.
As a father myself, I relive the moment of my own father, the driver and innocent, although I don’t think he ever forgave himself for being behind the wheel at a particular place and at a particular time when another car, traveling in the opposite direction jumped the median and, like a heat-seeking missile, landed dead square and tore apart my family’s car. When movement and that horrible noise of twisting medal stopped, my father, mother, brother, and sister lay strewn on the highway, sleet falling on the sudden silence.
In a movement of habit and obligation, my father began to rise and to take control of the situation. He only got as far as his knees, when he saw my sister’s crushed body. He stayed there on his knees until he could only drop to his hands, his head bowing, forehead touching the wet pavement. I imagine that he had felt betrayed. He had lived a good life, dutifully fighting in two wars when his country called, faithfully raising his children, and probably believing that if he did all that was asked of him by a God that he believed loved him, then he could withstand anything in life, except, perhaps, this one horror that all parents do not want to think about. He would never have imagined that this loving God could take away one of his beloved children. He lived the rest of his life with his chin up, as he used to call it, demonstrating a bravery with which he thought all men should live, but he lived with his heart searching for his daughter and for his beloved Father who left him in the sleet that day.
No, it wasn’t my father who rose to the occasion. How could he? It was my brother, Steve, a young man who had seen his own troubles but was not burdened by a life of war, and hardship, and the struggles of any family man. It was he who went over to pick up my sister’s broken body, to hold it lovingly, but powerless, nonetheless, to bring it back to life. I could hear it in his voice when he called me. “I think you’d better get down here. We’ve been in an accident and Marybeth is hurt pretty bad.” Of course, he knew that she was already dead, but protected me from that moment so that I might be able to travel safely to the hospital. I don’t think Steve ever recovered from that, and it would be simplistic to blame his alcoholism on that moment, but I can’t help to think that his life might have been different only if….
And it was my mother, who faithfully and literally followed her Irish-Catholic upbringing, which taught her that good people are rewarded and bad people are punished. So this punishment was more than she could bear. Her life after that was one of self-punishment and self-imprisonment, trying to make up for imagined and unimaginable sins so that one day she would be with her “angel in Heaven.”
My father passed away a few years later and Steve died years after that, his body succumbing to years of abuse from his alcoholism. And I had a dream last night. A dream in which Marybeth came back to life, only after Steve placed an anointing oil on her forehead. My father stood by, proud of his son, and happy to see his daughter. He still stood back, but this time standing. I am quite sure someone else was there. Perhaps it was my mother, who today lies in a nursing home, suffering from a horrible dementia that seems to ask her to relive that day over and over. I am sure that the other person there was Life itself, the Spirit that many of us believe breathes life into our lungs, the loving Father about which my Catholic faith should teach us. And if you are a Christian, you would recognize, in an instant, this scene as the Incarnation itself.
We all lose things; life changes and certainly never ends up the way we had once imagined it. But that is the point, isn’t it? The things that we clutch and hang on to are the things that are guaranteed to decay, to become lost, to become meaningless. My father found his loving Father for whom this accident caused him to search. My brother is far more a hero than many of us remember because his life’s pains seemed to define him more than this event. But it was this event that really defined him, his humanity, his ability to love. And despite all of those sappy songs that croon that love never dies, it is his love that lives in all of us today. It gives hope that my mother, who today, minute by minute, is still living that accident, is receiving that same gift. After all, sometimes time is a gift.
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