“We have all known the long loneliness”

On St. Patrick’s Day, my parents drove to my grandmother’s house to let the meter reader in. It’s been vacant since she passed away in July 2008—we’re still trying to sell it.

The meter reader was late. So Mom and Dad set up lawn-chairs near the magnolia, blossoming eerily early in the 80-degree heat, and lounged.

John, a neighbor and one of the few remaining vestiges of the era when my grandparents’ street was a Polish island, saw their car. John walked over through the backyard, said hi and told them the news. Eddie, another erstwhile neighbor, was dead.

The couple next door to my grandparents had a handful of children. Both my parents, though they would not meet each other until their twenties, were childhood pals of these kids. Eddie was the oldest.

Eddie went into the service and stayed there for a while. I asked my mom which branch. She thought army. I asked if he was in Vietnam, since that occurred around that time. She didn’t know.

As the story unfolded, I realized this was a trend. Few outside Eddie’s immediate family knew much about Eddie.

After the army he went to Arizona and became a businessman of indeterminate kind. He did well. A shiny luxury car returned periodically to the old neighborhood to call upon the aging immigrant parents.

The visits were scattered. They were rare enough to be as noteworthy as the car. In a gossipy ethnic enclave, ravenously attentive to material signs its offspring were making it, this was not an inconsiderable detail.

Eddie could afford more visits than he made. One of the few relatively solid facts in the gossip mill was that he spent little on anyone or anything. There was no wife, no kids. And after Eddie’s dad died twenty years ago, the shiny car faded into memory.

He prospered enough to retire early. He was 64 when he died in February. February is as sure as they’ll get.

They think early in the month, probably a stroke. The autopsy approximated the cause, more or less. Eddie had lain in his condo for about three weeks, his absence from life unnoticed. A postal worker initiated the wellness check when the mailbox overflowed.

This is the Passion narrative from the American gospel of self-reliant, bootstrapping individualism. Eddie pulled up so many roots that he sublimated like an ice cube, became an ethereal rumor floating between the office park and the golf course and the ADT-protected front door. He wasn’t concrete again until civil servants busted down that front door, wasn’t part of a community again until they called the next-of-kin.

One of the overriding themes of my winding Catholic pilgrimage is that, whatever else the Church has to offer the world, community is of first importance. Salvation is Jesus’ job. Gathering people is the Church’s job.

We are here to walk each other’s mile and bear each other’s load. We coax each other out of isolation. We do it not just to conquer more mission territory but because it is right, and because not to do so is unutterably sad.

“We have all known the long loneliness,” Dorothy Day wrote, “and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”

Eddie definitely made his own choices. But every person who dies without someone there to say “I love you” is still a nudge for the Church to wake up a little, to ask what it might have done, what it could do in the future. It is a nudge for me personally, because I, in communion with all the baptized, am the Church.

Rest in peace, Eddie.

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