Death has never been very far from me. Death and I, we have a long relationship--one that passes back years and creeps into my childhood. Our relationship is not steady, but it is always there, serving as some reminder. Of course, many know of some pieces of death--death of relationships, death of dreams, death of expectations and hopes--but the big one, death of life and loved ones, some people are very fortunate to not have shaken hands with that one yet.
But when you lose your brother before either of your teen years really begin, or when you lose your cousin just before life begins after graduation, you find yourself speaking to death as if it was a part of your life since you were crawling. The thought of losing someone so young isn't so much of a scary nightmare--it's more like, reality. And losing someone before they've gone into the world and really made a name for themselves isn't such a distant tragedy as it is a very familiar ache.
So, when a young man (of only twenty years, actually) meets with death, it hits like a ton of bricks. It reminds you that death never left, the ache never healed, and the tears never ended. An event like this reminds you that life is much more fragile than any of us recognize on a daily basis. We forget that each moment is another gifted moment, until we see someone who ran out of moments too soon.
I drove home to be the supportive, strong-shoulder for my younger brother. (My younger whom I am enormously thankful for each day because I recognize how close death is and how soon it could come, without any notice.) I prepared for a week how to be loving and gentle, kind and comforting in a time of such despair and trouble. Kids should not be burying their friends, they just shouldn't. And this pain was so recognizable on the faces of so many young men and young boys. Abundant tears, red rings and circles crippled the faces of boys I grew up with who always seemed so tough. Tough just has no hold on death.
What I discovered was that my face matched those other faces more than my brother's did. It's not because he's not sad, or full of ache, it's that death isn't quite so close for him. He was much too young to understand what was happening when we were kids.
But here's what else I discovered. Death might be near and very real to all of us, but it does not have to be scary or full of tragedy; it can be peaceful, full of love, and welcoming, too.
The pastor who started the funeral was a gentle, wise, old man who seemed to be grieving just like the rest of us. He was also celebrating. He told us, "We all sit here and grieve the loss of such a young man. We grieve the life he didn't live, and we grieve the gifts he gave to us while he was here. We grieve, but he doesn't. In fact, in death, I think he was welcomed. I think, in the midst of a terrible accident, there was God. And He was saying, 'welcome home, child, come on home now.' And he isn't grieving where he is now, he isn't sad."
And I still can't listen to Noah and the Whale without crying uncontrollably. I can't think about the funeral, or those boys and kids, or even about my own brother without grieving. But what I can do is remember that in death--this tragic, terrible, sad event we call death--there is welcoming. There is an overwhelming feeling of warmth, comfort, and love that we cannot even begin to describe or imagine.
Think of it this way: you're driving back to the town you grew up in, the town you had all of your firsts in--first steps, first kiss, first dance, first love, first car--and you turn that last corner. The entire town is revealed to you in a moment. You see the trees, the sky, the buildings, and the town you so well remember. You breathe in deep all of those memories and stories, and you have a sense of a big hug wrapping you into all of it. You're 'coming home'. Now, amplify that by about a billion, maybe a trillion. You're coming home to a home you've never seen or been to, but dreamt about your whole life. It is the most beautiful sky, most beautiful rivers and lakes and oceans, and the most beautiful animals you've ever seen. The breathe you take is the deepest and fullest you've ever had.
This is the picture of death that God has created.