When you’re sick and know you’re going to die you do what’s called putting your affairs in order. The phrase calls to mind matters financial. More often, however, the ordering of affairs involves repairing personal relationships and hurriedly inflating spiritual life rafts.
My dad—still going strong at 82—calls this “getting right with the Big Man.” I take it he means the God of the Bible, though filial piety compels me not to pry.
“Don’t worry about me,” he says. “My bags are packed.”
Years ago my friend Brett died in a car crash. He was young and driving too fast—recklessly even—in the middle of the night on a remote stretch of Texas highway. He may not have been wearing a seat belt. I’d seen him do it sometimes. His bags were not packed.
Brett was a wild man. You know the type—charming, handsome, magnetic. He wore leather jackets and cowboy shirts. People said he looked like a young Richard Gere. He was on a cross-country trip from Los Angeles, where we knew each other, to Atlanta, where he was from. He never made it home.
I had tried to warn Brett about his seat-belt stupidity. Maybe I wasn’t as forceful as I should have been. It was thrilling to be around someone so unconcerned for his own safety. I was young, too. Everyone was young. It was years ago.
At the time of his death, Brett owed a small amount of money to another friend. This second friend had lent the money, perhaps inadvisably, because he didn’t know how to refuse the request. Of the English language’s 170,000 words, is any harder to say than no?
It wasn’t a lot of money. How much can it be when you’re twenty-four? But true to form, Brett failed to pay the loan back in a timely manner. The second friend took it as a personal insult.
“I thought I could trust you,” he said. “I thought we were friends.” To which the young Richard Gere replied, “Hey, if you’re going to be that way about it.” He may have rolled his eyes for emphasis.
Time passed, but the two of them couldn’t reconcile. I tried some shuttle diplomacy. No use. They wouldn’t speak. They wouldn’t even acknowledge one another’s presence.
Then, like a meteor, the inconceivable: Brett was gone. There would be no getting affairs in order. Not for him. Not for his friends and family.
Whatever pain and confusion I felt at Brett’s death—and it was considerable—was of a different order than that felt by my second friend, the money lender. There was no use trying to console him. His dudgeon had been petty; he knew it and felt it. He understood that he was headed for a lifetime of regret.
The whole tragic episode was substantially aggravated by the fact that we were all so young. In those days, I had almost no experience with death, never mind grief, acceptance, compassion, or true forgiveness. My friends and I were wired to explode. Everything went to eleven, as it does when first you encounter what Joyce called “the reality of experience.”
All these bitter memories came rushing in like rain last week along with the news that Paul Windels had died. A father in our small homeschool co-op, Paul had repeatedly and generously taken the time to play chess with my eight-year-old son, Patrick, when no other partner was to be found.
He made ancient history come alive for a room full of thirteen-year-olds. Our Clara was mesmerized when he'd lapse into Greek, which he’d majored in at Yale, or draw ancient battle formations on the board, animatedly narrating the movements of Caesar’s legions.
My wife had lately been planning to drop Paul a note of thanks for all of it. Then, without warning, it was too late. It will forever be too late.
A brilliant and accomplished lawyer, Paul was beloved by the youngsters of the Colm Cille Club. He was never seen without a large book beneath his arm, to read for pleasure as he waited between classes. The kids delighted in his good nature and quirky ways. Instead of scolding them for their hallway antics, he’d offer a more elegant rebuke.
“I think that may be unwise,” he’d suggest. Or: “I don’t recommend that.” They never knew how lucky they were to have such a beautiful mind in their midst.
Paul wasn’t twenty-four, like Brett, but he was too young to go to his reward. His wonderful children and his loving wife are coping with grief of unimaginable dimensions. Their solace is their unshakeable Catholic faith—something that my young friends and I didn’t have to brace us years ago. Paul’s bags were packed.
If God knows what he’s doing—and I’ve wagered my life that he does—heaven has enough room for these men, one a wild stallion, the other a paterfamilias. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let perpetual light shine upon them.
Matthew Hennessey writes from Connecticut.