[This is an essay I wrote two years ago, a year after my father died, a few weeks after my mother died, a few weeks before Easter. It was first published at The Catholic Weekly on April 2, 2021.]
After my mother’s funeral, I drove home and took off my wet, muddy clothes, and found that I could barely move. My flesh had turned to sand and I couldn’t make my limbs work. I crawled into bed, and the longer I stayed there, the heavier I got. I kept thinking about how my mother’s body was so light, they let her coffin down into the grave by hand. They used heavy machinery to place my father in the ground just before Easter last year, but my mother had become very light.
In my mother’s funeral sermon, the priest spoke of Lazarus. Martha thought her brother’s death was a stupid, pointless death. She accuses Jesus: If you had been here, our brother would not have died! And she was right. But Jesus wanted to show them, I suppose, that he is who he says he is. He is the resurrection and the life. Where he is, there life is. That’s who he is, said the priest: He is the Resurrection. And he comes as close as he pleases, when he pleases, to do as he pleases.
In this story, he raises his voice, and Lazarus comes out. They undo everything that has been done: They take his winding cloth off, they feed him again. Lazarus lives again.
I wonder if Lazarus was afraid to go to sleep that night. I wonder how he felt when the newness of his new life wore off and he sinned again for the first time: how stupid he must have felt when he had to repent again, even after he had already died.
I wonder how he felt later, when he started to die again for the second time. Maybe by that time he had gotten blasé about the process, and thought he’d be protected from that final darkness for a second time. Or maybe he was afraid he would be rescued, afraid he’d be called back and asked, for some reason, to do it all again.
Isn’t it awful, sinning again and again? Facing death, being rescued, sinning and repenting and being forgiven, and then going out and doing it again?
When my mother first became a Christian, she was crushed to realize it was still very easy to sin. She had heard, and read, and taken to heart the idea that baptism brings the life of Christ into human souls. She thought that, since Jesus had taken up residence in her heart, he would therefore prevent her from doing anything bad. She thought you choose Jesus and jump in the water, and when you come up again, you’re set for life.
But that’s not how it works. I don’t know which sin she committed that showed her how wrong she was, but I imagine it was something petty — something small and human, which nonetheless showed her very starkly that you can be washed in the blood of the lamb and then go right back to acting like a stupid sheep. In fact, it’s inevitable. You go back, Jack, do it again. It’s not a “one and done” situation. It’s an “over and over and over again” situation, and you don’t always know what it’s for.
One stupid thing about the way my mother died was that she was a frail and tiny woman whose brain had long since been pillaged by dementia. She couldn’t dress herself, or speak, or sit up, and sometimes she forgot how to eat. So this little tiny ravaged woman got COVID. Then she beat COVID, and recovered completely from COVID, and began to get stronger, and then she died anyway, of something else. I think they called it “undetermined” on her death certificate, which made me laugh a little. I snickered through my tears that I knew the real reason she died. The very day before, her nursing home opened up visiting hours again for the first time in many months. She never did like social occasions, and would do anything to get out of them. I imagined her seeing some guests on their way, and thinking “Not this again!” and taking some extreme steps to avoid playing host.
I’m supposed to be writing about Easter in time of Covid. All I can say is that, if you zoom out far enough and take a long enough view, Covid time is no different from any other time. When the pandemic raged unchecked, it was clear to every sane person that death was near to us, or could be, or might be. But that’s always true. Death is always very close. Both my parents died, one at the beginning of the pandemic, and one toward the end, but neither died of covid. Death of all kinds is always very close.
My father used to say he was going through an awkward stage, the one between life and death, and I’m feeling that pretty hard right now. Some Easters on earth are like that: If not tragic, then awkward and a little stupid, stupid like Lazarus caught between his first death and his second one, stupid like sin, stupid like things that happen over and over again and seem to have no meaning.
When my grandmother had dementia, my mother, who cared for her, used to anguish over what the meaning could possibly be for her mother’s life. It went on and on and on, long past the time when anyone could make any sense of it, least of all my grandmother herself. Eventually my mother stopped asking, and just tried to rest in the thought that there are some things we can’t know right now. It doesn’t mean they don’t mean anything. It just means Jesus knows, and when he wants us to know, he will come and tell us.
When my mother’s dementia got bad, we had to put her in a nursing home, and my father went to see her every day. He went back and back and back to see his wife, who couldn’t even look at him or say his name, and after a few years of it, and by God, he changed. He started to love life. He became a happy man, and then the man called “Resurrection” came for him, just before Easter, just as the COVID lockdown began.
Sometimes Resurrection looks like getting your beloved brother Lazarus back; sometimes Resurrection looks like the death of both your parents, at least from the outside, at least for now. You never know what will happen when the Lord comes near.
When Martha said, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” she was right. Sometimes he draws near, and then draws away, for reasons of his own. I do believe in the power of baptism. I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting, eventually. I do believe in the man called “Resurrection.” I don’t care for his methods, but I believe in him. When he wants me to know more, he will come and tell me.
Image: Resurrection of Lazarus, Workshop of Daniel Chorny and Andrey Rublev, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons