Advent, Christmas, the season of hope and promise, of love, and great mystery. The Bible tells of visits from angels, of signs in the heavens, of impossible revelations, of the birth of God in human form. Something magical seems to happen each year as we anticipate the time of giving tangible evidence of our affection to those we cherish. We all seem a little kinder, more playful, more generous. The great mystery seems more believable and closer to our human experience.
All cultures, all over the world, embrace teachings and rituals, ancient wisdom, and stories that originate far back in time. We tell of angels and gods and goddesses, of eagles and spirit guides, of mystical teachers; wisdom is embodied in the most unusual forms. Though our stories and beliefs may differ depending on whether we are Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish or a host of other belief systems, all these ways help to explain who we are and where we came from, what we aspire to, and what comes after us. We experience the unexplainable within the context of our lineage and our personal journey. The mystery teachings and our experiences may, over time, deepen within us, giving meaning to our encounters with others and our life circumstances that we could not have anticipated. We become living testimonies to our beliefs. Collected wisdom, a storehouse of treasures is what we become when we stay open and trusting of all that is just beyond our sight and comprehension, when we have faith that our lives have purpose, that our prayers are heard, that answers will be revealed, that we matter in the present and for those who follow after us.
On this day, Sunday, December 8, 1968, my brother Tom died. He was born in 1949 with muscular dystrophy; a mystery in itself as no one on either mother’s or dad’s sides of the family had this genetic disorder. His life expectancy was ten years. When he died, Tom was nineteen years old. He lived his life as fully as possible. Looking back there were signs that last year that his life was coming to a close. Still it was full. He was a sophomore at St. Louis University majoring in physics. He played guitar and together with several friends – each with physical handicaps – formed a musical band and performed for friends and family. His lovely girlfriend, with no limitations of body or mind, said that Tom was the most amazing young man she had ever met. In many respects, he had it all – intelligence, talent, good looks, great friends, supportive family, the love of an amazing young woman. He savored all the goodness in his life. He never complained about his hardships.
Tom spent his last two weeks in the hospital with pneumonia, often the end result of muscles that atrophy. Still he communicated through smiles, eye movements and by writing on a small tablet held up for him by one of us. His many questions centered around the great “whys” of life. I did my best to answer him. With reassurance from his doctors that Tom would be out of the hospital and home for Christmas, we said goodbye on December 7. We needed to cling to the doctor’s words and offer each other hope. But when we said goodbye, and I looked in his eyes, I knew that Tom knew, as I did, that this was our final goodbye. We knew without knowing how we knew.
Our parents spent the night at the hospital. Certain that Tom was resting quietly, they went to the lounge for morning coffee. A nurse summoned them. Christmas carols were playing throughout the corridors. As they stepped into Tom’s room, the last phrase of Silent Night, accompanied them. “Sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace.” Tom was asleep in peace at last.
Tom’s living and dying taught me so much and showed me how little I really know. I believe that the answers we have today, the opinions, the firm convictions are all merely scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The “why”questions have no definitive answers. Yet the questions that we ask and are asked, the answers given and received, are the ways we live our lives. We become the missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. We add to the mystery and help to solve it. We may never understand. But perhaps those who follow after us, who add their own lives to the puzzle, may catch a clearer glimpse of the whole.
- in honor of my brother Tom, 1949-1968