The Common Good

'Memento Mori' and Living Today to the Fullest

I awoke in the middle of the night last evening and walked the house in the dark. Kenneth and Caitlin were still stirring, as the older children sometimes do on the weekend. As I climbed the stairs back to our room I felt a wave of gratitude.

Crucifixion image, Heather A. Craig / Shutterstock.com
Crucifixion image, Heather A. Craig / Shutterstock.com

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Here we are all under one roof for who knows how much longer, yet such a privilege to still be together even as four of seven attend college and work hard and make us proud as they figure out what's next.

I got back into bed and Debbie put her arm around me in her sleep. I said "I love you," and she whispered, half-asleep "I love you, too," and for that moment all was well, and I had a sense that all would be well in the future, come what may.

As I lay there in the stillness, an encounter from five years ago came back to me in vivid color. I had just preached the funeral of a man taken unexpectedly following a routine surgery. I was at the wake afterward and sat next to an unassuming man in his mid-50s whose suit was impeccable and whose polite manners suggested a quiet grace and a bearing of humility in his obvious accomplishments, but also a bit of world-weariness.

My clerical collar can just as quickly put someone at ease as it can hinder conversation, but we fell into a fairly deep chat. He told me about his only son — a son he loved so much that, even in his son's mid-20, they still took vacations together each year, just the two of them.

About five years before our meeting they had ventured somewhere south and checked into a Hilton. Overnight, a furnace failed badly and filled their room with carbon monoxide. The maids found him and his son the next morning. The son was deceased, and he was unconscious. He didn't wake up for several days. When he had been awake in the hospital long enough to notice the absence of his son and to ask his wife where their son was, he learned that he was gone.

I remember this man's face — every nuance of expression and voice — when he said what he said to me next: "My first thought was a wish that I had never woken up either."

I often have thoughts of this man. I have pondered his profound love for his son and the bitterness of waking up in that hospital and learning what had happened to them. I wondered at the time, and still wonder, "How does anyone go on after waking up to a reality so grim? How can this man remain so well-mannered, so sharp in that suit, so elegant in his grief?"

We have such dignity as human beings, made in the image of God, and this man had not surrendered the Imago Dei for all his unbearable suffering. I will never forget him. But I think I know better now why that wave of gratitude (about my seven children under this roof in this house) came over me with such force last evening.

The Memento mori ("remember you will die") of Ash Wednesday and of a Holy Lent is not a macabre, dark, or morbid reminder. It is our wake up call to live fully in the moment, to live *today* to its fullest. We do not know when death will visit us.

Lord have mercy on us all. Help us never to grow weary of the presence of our children, come what may, and to remember that *today* is the day of our salvation.

The Rev. Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Mich. 

Photo: Crucifixion image, Heather A. Craig / Shutterstock.com

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