A few months ago, we got a disturbing text message from our daughter: “Alphonse died of a massive heart attack.”
“Who’s Alphonse?” I asked my wife.
There was no explanation, so we said a prayer for him and went about our business, until that evening, when our daughter explained he was a cardiologist who was a close friend of her in-laws. While making his rounds at the hospital, he called his wife and said he felt sick and then suffered a heart attack and died. He was 60 years old — an age that most baby boomers don’t want to associate with death because, in a culture that popularizes longevity, life isn’t supposed to be that short. Isn’t 60 the new 40?
From time to time, we all hear stories like Alphonse’s. They become cautionary tales that make us stop and think about our bad habits, our poor diet, our stress level, our life insurance policy and just about everything ... except the state of our souls. To the ancients, however, this would be a memento mori, a reminder that you have to die. In our culture, death is something we struggle to forget.
When we stare into a coffin, it’s so easy to utter banal resolutions: “I’m going to start working out. I’ll watch my cholesterol. I have to control the stress. No more hot fudge sundaes and potato chips.”
Instead, we should give serious consideration to what we have to show for our life — not in terms of wealth, power and prestige, but in acts of love and kindness for Christ’s sake, since these are the only achievements we’ll take into the next life. In the end, it won’t matter whether our obituary makes The New York Times or we’re named Businessperson of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce. What will matter is how well we tried to do God’s will.
When I enter the Great Hereafter and have my life review, I’ll probably be shocked to see all the times I wasted on self-promotion, self-advancement and just plain old self-centeredness. Many of us will be disappointed to realize that what we did with our lives was woefully inadequate for the opportunities we’d been given.
The story of Alphonse reminded me of The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, in which Brother Juniper witnesses five people fall to their death from an Inca rope bridge and struggles to understand why this tragedy occurred in the light of God’s providence.
People probably asked the same questions about Alphonse’s death. Why then? Why there? Why, God? We have many conceptions of death, such as the good die young and the bad live too long, and we often struggle to make sense of it all. But God’s ways are inscrutable, and he calls us home in his own time, whether we think we’re ready or not, regardless of our age or our achievements. I like to believe he takes us at the best possible time, since he sees the whole picture.
Throughout history, saints have kept reminders of their mortality nearby, even human skulls and coffins, to remember that death can come at any time. I keep my own memento mori in my desk drawer. It’s a collection of prayer cards from funerals I’ve attended, which I take out from time to time so I can pray for the souls of my deceased family members and friends and never forget that I, too, shall walk the same path.
I said a prayer for Alphonse, a man I never knew, and took his death as a reminder of what Thomas à Kempis said 600 years ago, when life expectancy was a lot shorter and they thought about their mortality a lot more than they thought about longevity:
“If you are unprepared to face death today, how will you be tomorrow? Tomorrow is uncertain and you may not be here to see it. What good is a long life if we do not use it to advance spiritually? ... Many have died suddenly and without warning; for the Son of Man will come at an hour when you least expect Him. When the hour of death comes, you will begin to think differently about your past life and great will be your sorrow then if you have been negligent and lazy in God’s service.”
Joe Pisani of Orange is a writer whose work has appeared in Catholic publications nationwide. He and his wife Sandy have four daughters.