He died the afternoon of Friday the 13th, after a long illness, in an intensive care bed at a Dublin hospital which was preparing for a pandemic. Outside, under a rainy March sky, the city was also preparing for a new reality, the supermarket car parks are filling and filling, cell phones are ringing, escape and repatriation plans are being made and unmade.
My friend called. “I wanted you to know,” she said, “that he’s gone.”
I remembered meeting him when I was young, shortly after his marriage to my friend. He was tall, bony, handsome, a little austere. I knew him as a principled person, and I couldn’t, at the time, say the same thing about me.
The years passed, as the years used to do, and when we saw each other again, he was approaching retirement. He was always imposing, but he seemed more gregarious, generous with his knowledge of books, music and politics.
He and my friend had had two children, a boy and a girl, beautiful intelligent young people who were, when I knew them, at the dawn of their adult life.
The reality of the loss of his family spoke of the reality of other losses, those that were, those to come
The first suspicion that he was sick came when he and my friend were going up the stairs to a borrowed apartment in an Italian town where they had gone, as a retirement, to listen to opera. He was out of breath, unable to climb.
It was a long illness, stoically transmitted, and sometimes people say these words and the familiarity of the sentence diminishes it to the point that it loses all its meaning. But the truth is that he endured his last months and weeks with stoicism, standing with his family at all times with the same determination and the same sense of purpose that had defined his life.
When my friend called me on this cold afternoon to tell me that he was dead, the cataclysmic events that surrounded us, the torrent of unpredictability that flooded our world, seemed to shrink under the peculiarity of his words. The reality of the loss of his family spoke of the reality of other losses, those that were, those to come.
We met with caution for humanistic service to celebrate his life. As we stood apart from each other, the March wind mocking, I looked at the faces of the people who had come to say goodbye to them, faces soothed by sadness, overwhelmed by time. We wanted to kiss, we wanted to offer the bereaved family condolences with handshakes and hugs, we wanted to touch the cheek of a sorry girl and say I’m sorry, I’m so sorry for your loss.
We obeyed the rules, however, and without this balm of affection, without being able to materialize our sympathies, what really mattered was the words. And the words spoken by my friend, her children and members of their extended family were powerful and dignified and spoke of a man who, all his life, had recognized heroism among the unknown.
We left the chapel, not to go to a hotel or a bar, but to take away, in the silence and the dignity with which it had been received, the powerful testimony of a life well lived
When my friend spoke, she started and ended by thanking the unsung heroes for their lives. She thanked the cleaning ladies in the rooms where he had spent his last months for their warmth, their energy, their conversations with him on the politics of their country of origin; for their camaraderie, for having managed to smile every day of their six-day work week.
She thanked the doctors who had fought to save her husband and the nurses whose expertise and humanity had accompanied the whole family. “We are,” she said, referring to the current crisis, “in good hands”.
Looking at the silent congregation, she thanked the donor who, several years ago, had offered a lung to her husband; an anonymous hero who had extended his life, allowing him to see his beloved children graduate.
We left the chapel as we had arrived, in a broken path, not to go to a hotel or a bar, but to take away, in the silence and the dignity with which it had been received, the powerful testimony of a life well lived.