I got the call from my department chair Saturday evening, but was unable to take it. I listened to the voicemail about an hour later and was stunned. The husband of a dear friend and colleague had suddenly passed away. Although he had been dealing with the effects of diabetes, he had been improving. My friend came home from work Friday and found him dead of a heart attack.
This particular woman has worked at the school where I teach Latin for twenty years. She started off as the lab director in our foreign language department, but has since moved on to computing services. Her son was a sophomore in my Latin II class the first year I taught at the school after moving back to Indiana from Texas. He went with us on a trip to Italy, and she has been a stalwart supporter of our program, serving as a chaperone everyone year when we go to the state Latin convention. She has worked as an unofficial co-sponsor (meaning without pay, after hours, from the goodness of her heart) of Latin Club helping students put together our state scrapbook or coming up with fundraising ideas. The couple's son, at the dissertation stage of his Ph.D., had just announced his plans to marry.
As soon as I heard the voicemail, I called and asked how she was doing. It is a stupid question, but there really seems to be no other way to start a conversation in such moments. We talked about this today in our A.P. class as we read the passage in Aeneid VI.456-458 in which Aeneas, in the underworld, asks the shade of Dido if the report of her death is true. This, too, is a stupid question. He is talking to someone in the underworld. Of course she is dead. Yet one of Vergil's great achievements is to portray humanity accurately. None of us knows what to say in these situations.
After listening to the details that she weakly shared, I asked the standard question, "Is there anything I can do?" It was to be expected, but I meant it. I was surprised, though, when she said yes. She said that her husband had always enjoyed my voice and hearing me read, and that she wanted me to read "Thanatopsis" and "Crossing the Bar" at his funeral. I told her that I would and expressed the honor I felt in being asked to do so.
And then I collapsed.
I was at our church and wandered down a hallway, eyes filling with tears. I eked out a few words to a friend with whom I was to meet and made my way to the restroom where I took advantage of the solitude and began to sob. When I thought I had pulled myself together enough to leave, the sobbing returned.
While I was indeed saddened by the news and grieving for my friend and her son, this was not why I was crying. I was overwhelmed by the weighty presence of God. His sheer, awesome majesty bore down upon me and I could not stand up. That I, a simple high school Latin teacher should have been asked to perform this task at the funeral of a student's family! Admittedly, the task itself is simple. Anyone with a command of phonics can perform it. Yet the honor that transcended the expected role of teacher and student...and then I began to think. Last summer a student asked me to walk her down the aisle at her wedding in the place of her father who has never been in her life. Twice within our family I have been asked to lead the funerals of loved ones. Who am I that God should allow me, call me to such roles of honor? In the anxious, stress-filled loneliness that touches all of our lives at times, God strode through the fabric of reality and made himself present to me in this calling, and I could not bear it.
I loveHim. I love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. He knows me. I cannot comprehend it, but He knows me, and I am grateful beyond words and even thought for the honor He bestows on one so unworthy by his own merits to approach His shadow. Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui Sancto, sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper in saecula saeculorum. Amen.
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