When I was just a small boy, I remember the time my family returned late from an outing, only to find police cars in front of our home. A burglar was reported entering through the second story. After the situation seemed clear, my parents left me alone in their darkened bedroom. Still in the house, the thief made his final forage through the top drawer of my mother’s dresser. The Bible warns us to be vigilant because death can come when you least expect it, like “a thief in the night.” Fortunately he was only interested in money and ignored the dozing boy on the bed.
As an adult, receiving mail was something I had grown to joyfully expect. I eagerly awaited its delivery because it brought me business reports, news periodicals, kind words from old friends, and an occasional check. Sometimes I would receive a postcard from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts where I matriculated over five decades ago. The school provides its alumni this unique way of informing us of the recent death of a classmate.
Over the years I have received over 60 such cards, out of a freshman class of 512. These postcards force me to search for any memories I might have had of the decedent. Sometimes the lack of any recollection saddens me for that missed opportunity for a personal connection.
The cause of death for my classmates has been varied. Two perished in helicopters in Vietnam. Several died of cancer or heart ailments and there was at least one suicide, a diminutive fellow who played Mickey Mouse at the 1965 World’s Fair. Of the number of classmates who entered the priesthood, one of the few who stayed was murdered, ironically by “a thief in the night” who had come to rob his rectory on the island of Jamaica a quarter century ago. I have grown to dread these postcards, not only because a forgotten friend may be on one, but because of their unspoken truth that there is one with my name on it waiting to be mailed.
The one card that upset me the most was the one I didn’t get. My roommate for three years at the Cross was a tall, blond fellow, named Peter T. Lawrence. While we were not bosom buddies he was like the brother I never had. He was a brilliant young man with a deep intellect that took me most of my life to approach. Yet he was troubled by some unseen drive or feeling that made him appear inward and even introverted.
We lost contact over the years. The last time I had seen him he had a wife and two beautifully blonde children. It was 1980. Years later I decided to write him and explain to him how much he had meant to me as a friend and how much he had inspired my intellectual drive before one of us ended up on a postcard. I also mentioned that if he chose not to answer I would understand.
Well nothing happened for six months. At Christmas I got a card with his name on it and his last known address. However it was not from Peter but from his widow. The last number of years had not been kind to him. He had been separated from his family and had suffered a series of strokes that virtually incapacitated him. On the prior New Years’ Eve, a massive stroke had ended his life.
I immediately contacted his two best friends from grade school and high school respectfully. The college finally got a notice of his passing and while it was mentioned in the Quarterly Alumni publication there never was any postcard. Peter did not get his postcard! There seemed to be some sort of cosmic injustice in that.
The undeniable truth is death comes to us all in many different shapes and forms. It is more inevitable than taxes. At birth each one of us is guaranteed two dates: the one on which we are born and the date that closes the brackets on our personal history. Better than any other line in literature, John Donne’s quote from his Meditations XVII, No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main captured the shared universality of our demise. Every time someone dies it diminishes our earthly existence and reminds us just how mortal we are.
Life is not only precious but also sacred. I am dismayed that so many people waste or carelessly throw theirs away. Sure life can be hard but too many people seem to have forgotten this life is but a preparation for the one to come. I am also amazed that so many make elaborate plans for “retirement,” only to die shortly after ending their careers. I often wonder if they planned as well on how they would spend eternity.
The daily obituary pages now offer us the smiling faces of countless strangers, friends, and family. Like my Holy Cross postcards, they serve as constant reminders that we should live each day with grace, good cheer and love as if it were our last, just in case that “thief in the night” might decide to take our most valuable possession.