One of my favorite authors published a book called “Love and Death,” which was published in 2008 shortly before he died. I’m re-reading it now and once again enjoying his message … that love and death are allies. I’ve now turned to writing Chapter Five of my next book (The Fiction of our Lives) titled, “‘Take Me Home, Country Road’: The Comfort of the Familiar.” As I say in the Introduction to the work, this chapter’s about examining research on “sources of comfort in the face of loss and sorrow, as well as acceptance of the self’s needs along the way.” When you see the finished book (as I hope many of you will, of course!), you’ll see that each chapter contains an autobiographical sketch from a now middle-aged or, perhaps, “middle-ageless” Baby Boomer (of which I suppose I am one), reflecting on their past and their present lives relative to whatever the chapter topic happens to be (e.g., friendship, morality, religious impulse, love, and so on). This particular chapter is about dealing with loss in our lives.
Now the interesting thing I’ve noticed as I’ve settled down to consider the chapter is that for the Boomers I know, and thus having drawn from their life stories in earlier chapters, none experienced any significant loss in their early years. Of course, through the ensuing decades we’ve all had losses of various kinds – jobs, lovers, spouses, health, and so on. But not in our teens or early adulthood.
So I’m turning instead to someone I have come to know only in his writing. Forrest Church, son of the late senator Frank Church, was a Unitarian minister at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City. He was a prolific writer of spiritual books, and his last was titled Love & Death. He died of esophageal cancer shortly after the book was published in 2008. The book joins a large genre of “death and dying” books that have poured onto the market in the last few years. Yet it is not a book so much about how to die as it is a book about how to live before that inevitable end.
A number of years ago I included in a sermon of mine at St. John’s the following story that Forrest Church relayed early in his work. He talked about his closest friend, Dalton Denton, when they were both undergraduate students at Stanford University. They were dorm mates during their freshman year. Church describes Denton as a “blithe spirit, serious about life but not at all somber.” He was apparently great fun to be with and, at the time, was the closest thing to a sophisticate that Church had encountered in his young life. He introduced Forrest to scotch and Beethoven, and they would often sit up all night debating the great questions of the day.
Anyway, Dalton died of pneumonia in the middle of their sophomore year while vacationing on the ski slopes of Vail, Colorado. Apparently he’d been out on the ski runs the day before, but because he woke congested, Dalton decided to stay back in the cabin and rest for that day. When the friends finally returned to the cabin later in the afternoon, they found Dalton dead. He’d succumbed to some form of virulent pneumonia that had overtaken him during their absence.
But what I wanted to share with you, and what I included in my sermon — what has stayed with me since — is this. A week before Dalton died, Church told him that he (Church) would probably die before the age of twenty-five. Apparently Church was a romantic at heart, and saw himself melodramatically suffering some early death like the poet Keats. Church writes: “This romantic, melodramatic flourish didn’t impress my friend. He simply said, ‘Lighten up, Church. You’ve been reading too many existentialists. Besides, six years from now is a fantasy, however you cut it. Today is the day. Don’t ruin it.’ He was right. And then he was dead.” (P. 10)
Dalton’s death had a profound effect on the young Church – as you can imagine. He ends this story with the following observation. If he’d known then what he knew at that writing decades later, it would have helped him deal with Dalton’s death better than he had at the time. His later wisdom was this: “Love and death are allies. When a loved one dies, the greater the pain, the greater love’s proof. Such grief is a sacrament. Sacraments bring us together. The measure of our grief testifies to the power of our love.” (P. 10)
I’ve picked up Church’s book again and am re-reading it to likely use in my current chapter. His writing still moves me. And in my morning prayers, I have found myself asking for the grace not to ruin this day – ruining it with small concerns, with unnecessary fuming and fussing about trivial matters. And I give thanks for the life of Forrest Church and the wisdom he has passed on in this little treasure of a writing.