One of the quotes that has stayed with me from Neil Gaiman’s fictional work, “The Sandman,” is said by the character Death when she is going about her work in the mortal world:
“You get what everyone gets, a lifetime.”
Mr. Gaiman’s version of death manifests not as the scythe-wielding, cloak-enshrouded apparition common in many movies and books; but as a young woman into the goth scene. From what I remember of the series she is also a fairly compassionate incarnation of Death which was an interesting twist back when the Sandman comic came out in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s.
Death has been on my mind a fair bit for the past few weeks, as a priest who was a colleague of my mom’s, and who presided at her funeral, died recently and I was able to attend his funeral.
I didn’t know him well, but I felt that I should attend the funeral if I could, for two reasons. First, because if Mom were still alive, she would have gone. Her relationship with both the priest and the church he served was important to her and was one of the reasons she asked him to do her funeral. Second, because he provided me with un-looked-for, but very welcome, support at the end of Mom’s life and especially between the time she died and the time of her funeral.
At his funeral, both of the people who spoke commented on how good he was a being a priest. My own experience matched that. When I called him to tell him Mom had died, he was in the hospital himself getting treatment. To some extent, he and mom were partners in this. Both had serious illnesses and were facing the fact that it was more a matter of when, than if they would die. One of the things Mom talked about as she got too weak to leave the house was her disappointment knowing she would not be here to support her, much younger, colleague as he faced his own illness.
For his part, when he and I met to discuss the service plan that mom had drawn up and to work out all of the logistics for her funeral, he took the time to ask me how I was doing. He let me talk about my feelings and asked some very good questions that were very helpful, not just during our meeting, but for me to take forward as I adjusted to life without Mom. In that meeting, he was everything a priest should be: welcoming, compassionate, practical, and even a bit funny. It helped that he had known Mom well and that both he and she shared some of the same memories of the congregation they had both served at different times.
While I sat in the sanctuary listening to the prelude, I read his obituary and was startled to learn that he was several months younger than I was. Part of that might be that I am still young enough that I tend to assume that people in roles such as doctor, dentist, lawyer, or priest are automatically older than I am. I know that part of it was that, even then, his illness made him seem frailer and therefore older than his years.
But a big part of it was the wisdom and compassion he demonstrated to me. Even though he was visibly ill, even though he was dealing with his own medical issues. Even though he was dealing with the stress of trying to be present for his congregation while dealing with his own issues. He took a slice of time that I expected to just be a meeting about logistics and turned it into a time for me to process my own feelings, for the two of us to share a few stories about my mom, and by doing that he gave me peace that I didn’t know I needed until he offered it.
His lifetime measured in years was short, but, from my expertise of him, he certainly lived into both it and his vocation.
We each get a lifetime, and while we don’t get too choose how long it will be, we can choose, to some extent, what to do with it.
I wonder if that is part of what Jesus meant when he said: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”* I also wonder if that was what the parable of the talents was really all about– the idea that it is better to risk and be vulnerable to loss, than to live in fear that someday we will die.
We all die, so it’s how we live that makes the difference, not how long we live.
The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, published between 1989-1996 by DC Comics
Bible citations are from Bible Gateway (NRSV)
Kristin Fontaine is an itinerant Episcopalian, crafter, hobbyist, and unstoppable organizer of everything. Advent is her favorite season, but she thinks about the meaning of life and her relationship to God year-round. It all spills out in the essays she writes. She and her husband own Dailey Data Group, a statistical consulting company.
© 2019 Kristin Fontaine