Today I stood and watched a box containing my stepfather's body get lowered into the ground, where it will remain forever (well...as long as the concrete liner lasts), and then we threw some dirt on it. It was one of the strangest experiences of my life.
Up until this point, Death has not had a major impact on my life. Almost nine years ago we lost my grandfather, but he lived in California and had suffered from Alzheimer's; in a way, "Gramps" had already been gone for a while, and frankly we were all relieved because we hated the idea of him lingering in a facility. But this is the first time Death has come right into my home, so to speak, and deprived me of someone I am accustomed to seeing and talking with frequently, someone whose absence now is bizarre. In a cerebral way, I recognize that he is dead. But on a more fundamental plane, I don't think I have accepted that he is gone.
Because of my faith, I think I am in a pretty good place about Death. I am less and less sure of the existence of Hell; if it exists, I think one has to try hard to get there. Many would insist that's where my stepfather is right now; of Quaker origins, he was unbaptized, and not a churchgoer. He and I never spoke about God, but I have the sense he was agnostic leaning ever so slightly toward "possibly." A natural skeptic -- I recall him scoffing at the suggestion that there might be any such thing as a UFO -- I'm not sure he would have been on board with the Virgin Birth and the Bodily Resurrection. And yet I can think of few other people I have encountered in my life who truly lived the Gospel. He gave to everyone and anyone, without expecting anything in return. He loved to help people. I never heard him gossip or say anything unkind or unfair. He was, genuinely, slow to speak and slow to anger. He was one of the least materialistic people imaginable. His was a life of care and, in a way, ministry. He was truly remarkable. Here was a man who didn't need to study the Bible, because God's law was written deeply into his heart and His Grace interwoven throughout the fabric of his being.
What awaits us when we die? As a Christian, I believe in the notion of Heaven, that it is a dimension in which we experience joy, peace and reconciliation, a state of being where all is made known and injuries, regrets and disappointments vanish into bliss. As Peter Jackson's -- not Tolkien's -- Gandalf put it to Pippin, "The journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise." Paradise is nice, right?
And yet, nothing so far has hit me harder than this from CS Lewis' A Grief Observed: "I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain than that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch?" If Heaven exists -- and I believe it does -- it is not a place. Dan is not "somewhere else." We can't get to him by hopping on a boat with some elves. He is dead, whatever that means.
* * * * * *
As an adolescent, I went through a period of years where I was something of a terror. It took me a very long time to accept my new stepfather, and for a time I was spiteful and cruel toward him. He loved to cook -- and, fortunately, was a very good cook -- but I can recall being dissatisfied with what I felt was his rather limited repertoire. One of his favorite dishes -- presumably because of ease; you just throw a chicken breast in a dish with three tablespoons of frozen orange juice concentrate, two tablespoons of soy sauce, a teaspoon of ginger and a half-teaspoon of salt and bake for 30 minutes -- was chicken a l'orange. I can recall complaining, "Are we having chicken l'orange again? Doesn't he know how to cook anything else?"
What a little bastard I was.
So here I am, many years later, heartbroken by this man's absence. And for dinner I cooked up chicken a l'orange.