One year ago today I knew my dad’s death was imminent, but I didn’t know the exact day (December 15). No one knew there would be a horrific shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut (December 14). Here in Wauwatosa, we didn’t know there would be a tragedy in our own backyard during the early hours of Christmas Eve morning, when a young police officer, Jennifer Sebena, would be killed while on duty by her own husband. Since last December, I have buried others’ loved ones, other innocent people have died as a result of gun violence and other police officers have been killed or wounded in the line of duty. Life goes on, doesn’t it?
I still remember, as a ten year old, lamenting to my dad on December 27, “It will be a WHOLE year until Christmas comes again, it takes SO long!” To which he responded, “The older you get, the shorter the years.” He was thirty-three at the time.
These past two days have provided a wonderful opportunity to sit still for a bit and think back over this year. Sometimes in the plowing ahead from task to task, appointment to appointment, deadline to deadline, I can forget that the life I’m living is the only one I will get. At the end of my days, the measure of my “success” at living this gift won’t be an empty e-mail inbox, a bucket list with all of the goals checked off, or even that I managed to mostly please most of the people most of the time.
Maybe my measures will be: Did anything in my life (beyond the color of my plastic collar) give witness that I was a person of faith? Did I tell my loved ones enough that I loved them (and beyond telling, did I manage to live the love I professed)? Did I hear the birds singing over the chatter in my head? Did I manage to come alongside and encourage others in their faith journey, or did I take the short cuts of guilt and emotional manipulation? Did I notice the phases of the moon or the annual march of Orion across the sky? Did I value people over things? How often did I neglect the thousands of ways this life is a gift, because I was too fixated on some problem or another that, in the end, probably wasn’t much of a problem at all?
Today is the last day of “ordinary time” in the liturgical year. Tomorrow is the first day of Advent, a season of waiting and watching, a season pregnant with possibilities. Tomorrow will also be the beginning of the last month of this calendar year. Beginnings and endings. Always beginnings and endings.
I understand that calendars are, in some ways, artificial markers of time. Barring any unforeseen tragedy, tomorrow for me (and anyone else who happens to read this post) will likely look a good deal like today does. I all too easily fall into the trap of living as if I’ve got a God-given right to go right on living. And when I fall into said trap of unconsciously moving from thing to thing, I forget to remember this life — all of it — is a gift that comes to me one day at a time.
Now only a few months away from my fifty-fifth birthday, my dad’s words from all those years ago make much more sense. Last December seems very close indeed. So for today, I will spend some time thanking God for my dad. I will spend some time praying for a society in which we do not seem to have the moral or political will to address the complexities of gun violence. I will light a candle for Jennifer. And I’ll go for a walk, breathe in the weather, and hope to hear at least one bird sing a song.
Dawn points, and another day prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind wrinkles and slides. I am here or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning. (from East Coker by T. S. Eliot)