Then they were alive.
Now they are dead.
Then the present tense could be used.
Now it’s confusing. Many sentences start off in the present tense and then take an awkward detour trying to land on the proper verb tense for someone who is alive in memory but dead in the body.
Then you knew your place in the world: child of this parent.
Now you are adrift. An anchoring chord you hadn’t fully been aware of has been severed.
Every year there is some pattern to the difficulties people in our company face. One year it was appendectomies. Another we had several deaths of nearly born children. Last year it was Achilles’ tendon injuries. This fall, three of my coworkers have had parents die of cancer unexpectedly. Which might seem like a contraction in terms, but it’s not. All three knew their parents had cancer and that the end of their life might come. In some cases more likely then others. But for all three there wasn’t much of an indication that the end would be now. So suddenly. So permanently.
That was then. This is now.
Last week I talked with a young man who was clearly in shock after hearing of his mother’s death. The kind of shock that is raw and evident and painful and beautiful because of the depth of loss it reflects.
The kind of shock that made me want to take my shoes off knowing that I was on holy ground once again. The kind of shock that shuts off the brain to daily tasks as it wrestles with much weightier issues.
Me: Does your family know you’re planning on coming home? Might they be able to move the service one day so that you can be there?
Him: Well, it will take 12 hours for my dad to reply to email.
Me: Could you call or skype him?
Him: I can’t figure out what time it is there.
The kind of shock that will leave him disoriented about more than time; as disoriented as seeing a parrot on the streets of Lhasa, Tibet. It was so painfully out of place I felt voyeuristic taking a picture. How had he gotten there? So far from where he should have been. Death is like a caged parrot in a dry mountain climate. Nothing about it is natural. Nothing.
It was over whelming for the young man to think of buying a ticket home. I have a new life principle: the first time you buy an international ticket on your own shouldn’t be for your mother’s funeral. The time for that will come, but not now when your whole world has been turned upside down.
His community rallied around him and tickets were purchased, calls were made, and bags packed. He was met in Beijing so that he wouldn’t have to pass the hours of his layover in an unfamiliar airport alone. This but a small sample of the tangible ways that people can reach out and carry you like the man carried by his friends to Jesus.
To the One who knew the pain of separation from a loved one. Who knew that death was not the way it was supposed to be. Who, too, mourned at the death of his friend before calling him back to life.
That was then. This is now. But this is not the end of the story. There is also a not yet, and in that not yet the shock will not be of loss but of all we have gained. As the cage
of door is opened and we are set free.