The Gathering

16906650-sailing-ship-sails-through-the-starsSaturday was gloriously beautiful, a pleasant change from the horrific weather that brought so much grief to so many Houstonians last week. The roads were choking with traffic. I suspect that most of the people of the city had cabin fever from being forced to stay inside for so long. It took me almost an hour to travel from my home to a destination in League City that should been little more than a thirty minute excursion. Driving might have been a source of extreme frustration were my mind not occupied with other thoughts. Instead, I found myself reveling in the buzz of activity playing out all around me. I realized at that moment that I am still very much a part of “this thing called life” and that was somehow a comfort to me.

I was on a very important mission, the last hurrah if you will for an old classmate. Eventually I reached St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the place where my friend, Chris, lay in quiet repose. He was all decked out in a Hawaiian shirt which somehow managed to make me smile even in the face of such a somber occasion. We had of course all assembled to pay our last respects to Chris and his family, a solemn duty that is never easy regardless of the circumstances.

As I made my way into the church I noticed friends sitting near the front. I immediately went to be with them. They represented safety, familiarity and a big piece of my history. All of us had walked with Chris back in the time when each of us had little idea of what our destinations would eventually be. We were simply young and filled with dreams, some hopelessly ridiculous and others quite mundane. For four years we laughed together and learned together. We were in the same place at the same time when President Kennedy was assassinated. We memorized the poem, “Sea Fever,” in Father Shane’s English class and never again looked at the ocean in quite the same way. We performed in the quirky play, “Ich Spion,” for German class and sang “Sister Wanda of the Wasteland” in Latin. We were so innocent as we slowly enjoyed and endured the experiences that would one day define us as a group and as individuals.

As the funeral mass began I looked around and saw Monica, Susan, Judy, Linda, Terry, Bill, Rusty, Mike and of course Chris. We had been there at Mt. Carmel High School when it was one of the premier private high schools in the city of Houston. It was modern and the neighborhood in which it was located was vibrant with the midcentury aspirations of our parents and ourselves. Fifty years ago we were just planting the trees that now shade the building. We fought with a group of vandals who kept chopping down the saplings that we placed near the entrance. Eventually our persistence paid off and the trees took root as evidenced in the hardy oaks that now bear five decades of rings.

I found myself understanding with a profound sense of belonging just what being a Catholic means. It is universal and transcends time and place. The words of the mass were as familiar on Saturday as they had been long ago when we witnessed the transition from Latin to English while we were still in high school. The songs were the same iconic tunes that we had once chanted as students. Somehow it seemed as though we were temporarily transported back to the days when we rarely dreamed of death or tragedy. It felt as though there would never be an end to our halcyon days.

The years fast forwarded. We went to all parts of the globe and used the lessons that we had learned together to meet the challenges and joys of daily living. We found love. We endured tragedies. We became successful in our work. We had children of our own and some of them gave us grandchildren. We always intended to check on one another but things became so busy. Ten years, twenty and now fifty went by so quickly that we hardly noticed. Our eyes and our smiles remain the same but mostly we more closely resemble our parents than the youthful champions that we were back then. Our new futures involve enjoying the hobbies about which we are passionate rather than pursuing careers.

Our friend, Chris, is gone and we never really took the opportunity to tell him how much he enriched our lives. To the young he was an old man but to us he will always be that beautiful and brilliant icon of youthfulness who took the lessons he had learned with us and built a family and a career that would have made anyone proud. In the end he reminded us of the love that has always surrounded each of us. When all is said and done it was love that our parents and our teachers wanted us to know. In our innocence it may have taken us a while to understand but through the years it sustained us and made us strong.

Chris was quite good at spreading good cheer even when his body began to fail him. He encouraged each of us with his positive comments on Facebook. He made us laugh just as he always had with his boundless sense of humor. He celebrated the stories of our lives again and again. On Saturday he brought us together in a spiritual way that will forever bind us.

The priest who said Chris’ funeral mass did not know him and yet somehow he captured the essence of him. He joked in a personal way that our friend would have enjoyed. He reminded us that life is a gift and so was Chris.

I left the gathering on Saturday wanting to find all of the people that I know so that I might hug them and tell them how wonderful they are. I somehow felt wealthy because I had rediscovered riches that I had been ignoring. My epiphany seemed to be the final treasure that Chris had given to all of us. He is now unbound by the illness and pain that had ironically made him so much wiser. So here’s to you, Chris, and the special person that you will always be with a word or two from John Masefield who has a better way with a phrase than I.

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

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