Death of the One

FEBRUARY 2012: AS WE SEE IT

by Robert Dahl

I am filled with disgust and emptiness over the rhythm of everyday life that goes relentlessly on—as though nothing had changed, as though I had not lost my precious beloved!
—Dietrich von Hildebrand

On the flight home from Naples, Florida, there was a stop in Pittsburgh. I sat in the airport watching all the couples and families on their way to or from a vacation. It was August. To me, they seemed so unbelievably happy. No matter how innocent I knew those travelers to be, I felt disgust that the “rhythm of everyday life” went on for them while I sat alone, the coffin of my precious beloved in the storage area of the plane.

One short week earlier I had been one of those people f lying from Michigan to Florida. But now, somehow, no matter how much I wanted to get back to that place, I knew I would never again be one of them because I would never again be the same.

To experience the joy and comfort of being graced with the love of another? Yes, thank God, and with a beloved who knows, who has been there. My soul mate. Thank God.

On a Sunday last July, I watched 42-year-old Darren Clarke win the British Open golf tournament. When I learned that Clarke’s wife had died five years earlier of breast cancer, I started rooting for Clarke even over my favorite golfer Phil Mickelson. The next day, I read these reports in the sports pages of the Washington Post:

Darren Clarke is a man who has endured genuine personal tragedy. . . . There is nothing that can happen to bring back Clarke’s wife Heather, who died from breast cancer five years ago, leaving him to raise their two sons who were 7 and 5 at the time. . . . Clarke’s victory in the British Open, 10 years after he last seriously contended in a major championship, was uplifting not only to him and his family and Northern Ireland, but to everyone in the game of golf. . . . How Clarke held his emotions together making that last walk up the 18th fairway is anybody’s guess. Chances are good that once he had a quiet moment to himself, he shed a few tears thinking about Heather. “I’m sure if she were here,” he said, “she’d be telling me, ‘I told you so.'”

I have an idea what has made the difference in Darren Clarke’s game after a dry spell of ten years: the television announcers said that he is now engaged to be married. After the final putt, he got a huge hug from his caddie and congratulations from the others on the green. He gave a quick hug to his parents and then continued to rush toward someone else in the crowd—his fiancée. They kissed and then kissed again. They embraced for what seemed like forever. I looked over at my wife Chris and choked back a tear.

Grateful? Eternally.

Darren will never forget Heather. He will always love her. But, by the grace of God, he now loves again.

For Darren Clarke and all those others who have suffered the tragic death of a loved one, life is lived always with a certain wariness, always with a little bit of “emptiness”—never again with innocent presumption. “Oh, I’m sure she’ll live to be a hundred just like her grandmother.” She didn’t get to half of that—forty-nine and down in a day. She was the lamb whose brain was f looded with blood.

And that disgust spoken of by von Hildebrand? On occasion, unexpectedly, it still rears its head. And once again I feel cheated. And then again I ache for my children, cheated of their mother’s presence. And then it subsides. Reminders still after eighteen years that I will never be the same again.

Twenty-five thousand dead in the wake of a tsunami. I see it on TV. I read it in the paper. In physical distance and emotion, I am half a world away. Twenty-five thousand down in a day, each one “the one” to someone, but the numbers overwhelm. Stalin said, “One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic.”

“You do not understand that it is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed,” uttered Caiaphas. Did Caiaphas concur with Stalin’s truism? How could he know that that one death would be the tragedy that would reverberate throughout the heavens? The next day, life went on in Jerusalem—that one death seemingly over and done. But that one death would represent all the “one” tragic deaths. That one death would reverberate in all those who know the loss of a loved one. It didn’t take the deaths of hundreds or thousands or millions. All it took was the death of one. All it took was the death of the One.

In the solitary cross we are confronted with all the injustice, all that is wrong with life. In the cross we are comforted that God knows, feels, experiences our disgust and emptiness. If a nation had died, we wouldn’t understand. Emotionally, we would be half a world away and the deaths would be statistics. But one died, the Beloved. And we know what it is to lose our beloved.

And in response, God grants us the life of the Beloved. It is God’s triumph over death and in that triumph “I” is transformed into “we.” And for now, before we can see clearly, before we know as we are known, before we stand face to face, we affirm the presence of the Beloved, while we experience still the disgust and emptiness that give rise to doubt— ironically, the very doubt that drives us back to the embrace of the Beloved.

We live at the intersection of the Realm of God and a place just east of Eden. And so we echo St. Peter, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Come, Lord Jesus.

Robert Dahl is a minister in the United Church of Christ who resides in Holland, Michigan.