The National Catholic Review
'If you had been here, my brother would not have died.'
Image

News about my brother’s death erupts in a late afternoon phone call. “John’s dead,” my brother-in-law Mike keeps repeating. “Dead,” he yells. “At a shopping mall shooting in Omaha. There’s a lot of other dead and wounded as well. The news is still coming in.”

I sit shaking as I take in the sparse information. Mike moves on to call other friends. I quickly inform my wife. She collapses into my arms and we hold on to each other and cry. Waves of vulnerability roll over us and we turn to familiar psalms for a mooring. Between sobs we read to each other, listening for the soothing cadence we know from Psalm 91:

If you cling to me I will deliver you;

I will protect you because you acknowledge

my name.

You shall call upon me and I will answer

you.

I will be with you in time of trouble;

I will bring you safety and honor.

I will give you life long and full

and will show you my salvation.

Ready for more details about the shooting, we link through the Internet to Omaha TV. Sure enough: at least six unnamed victims are confirmed dead and an unknown number wounded, several critically. An unidentified shooter had opened fire, then shot himself, during a busy pre-Christmas shopping day. We wait, we listen, we know the news is final, but I still plead, “Please Jesus, don’t let my brother die.”

We turn this time to John’s Gospel, searching for a device to measure our anguish, and our vulnerability is stirred again over the Lazarus story (John 11). It deepens as a messenger delivers a concise message to Jesus, somewhere in the Judean wilderness: “Lord, the one you love is ill” (Jn 11:3). The message is from Martha and Mary, sisters of the sick Lazarus.

Rather than leave the wilderness and rush to Bethany, Jesus delays the trip, while the conversation languishes in double meanings about whether Lazarus is asleep, sick, dead or alive—or destined to be an example for a new teaching. Jesus seems emotionally detached in his reflections on his friend’s situation. Two days later, after Jesus says that Lazarus is dead, he decides to go to Bethany. Yet Jesus frames the mission as an opportunity to awaken Lazarus from his sleep (Jn 11:14-15).

Official confirmation of the death of my brother comes with no clouded interpretation. It is now hot news on local television: John McDonald, age 65, grandfather to seven girls, dead with seven others at the Westridge Shopping Center in Omaha. The shooter, a 19-year-old male from the area, is dead as well, apparently by suicide.

Questions

Our personal network comes to life. My wife and I find our office filling up with friends, visibly shocked by the magnitude of the tragedy.

The situation in Bethany seems to have been similar. The Gospel account describes a house full of friends, likely bearing food, no doubt telling stories about Lazarus—his life and his death.

Martha leaves home to greet Jesus as he approaches the village. Her greeting seems more an expression of faith than a warm hug. “If you had been here,” she says, “my brother would not have died, but I know that, even now, what you ask of God, he will grant you.” Jesus responds with what sounds like a stylized expression, perhaps a prayer formulation from the early Johannine community: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will never die. Even though you die, if you believe in me, you will live” (Jn 11:25-26).

I am well known in my village, so a local television station asks if I will grant an interview. I weigh the implications of what is asked, knowing that if I can keep it together emotionally, I may be a voice of support and moderation for the other victims.

The interview flows smoothly, as I call for peace and forgiveness. I make the case that in outbursts of violence of this sort, we are all victims, since we all belong to the same human family. When one member suffers, we all suffer, including the shooter. I also say that this is another call to do something about the number of handguns and assault rifles within easy reach in the United States.

The television crew scans vacation photos I keep at my office: John and I river rafting, fishing, sightseeing at Glacier National Park. John’s bright smile and captivating presence dominate every picture. Brothers.

Many of those gathered this night knew John as a man of peace, active in social justice concerns, always a reconciler. “Where is God in all this?” someone asks. “Why the timing?” “Why were John and his wife at the courtesy counter at precisely the moment the shooter stepped off the elevator and opened fire?” “Why could they not have been delayed by holiday traffic and miss the whole sordid event? Fifteen minutes would have saved their lives.” Some of the questions sound too much like a paraphrase of Martha’s assertion: if Jesus had been there, your brother would not have died.

As the night deepens, more news comes in. The shooter carried a military assault rifle, an AK-47 with two 30-round magazines, under his sweatshirt into the shopping area. He shot rapid-fire and randomly for six interminable minutes at anyone bracketed in his sights. He honed his killing efficiency at a store courtesy counter, where customers were getting Christmas gifts wrapped. John died near the counter while his wife of 40 years observed the killing. Then the shooter turned the rifle on himself.

I tell the story too many times, run out of tears, then return home depressed and exhausted. Fearful of sleep, in the silence of a winter night, I turn again to the Lazarus story.

Tears

Martha returns home to Bethany and pulls Mary aside to inform her that “the Master” wishes to see her. With no announcement of her intentions, Mary leaves the house. A puzzled group of friends gather together and march behind her, believing that she is going to visit the tomb of Lazarus.

She greets Jesus by throwing herself at his feet, crying out from a black hole of loss, emptiness, hurt, impatience and anger. The Evangelist tries to describe her emotions by using the Greek word: embrimasthai (Jn 11:33). He characterizes the exchange as an expression of angry agitation. I see it as an unruly emotional escalation.

The escalation picks up momentum with Mary’s unapologetic wailing. I see her collapse in the dust at the feet of Jesus, refusing help from those around her, hammering home a powerful protest: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Jesus is clearly moved and becomes agitated until his emotional state intensifies into an outpouring of tears. Mary’s cortege catches the wave, and the crowd swells with empathy, sorrow and accusation. Someone points a finger and says, “If this man could restore sight to the blind man, he could have saved Lazarus from dying.” Jesus bluntly asks Mary, “Where have you put him?”

I get caught up in the entanglement and cry out to an empty room, “God help me; why didn’t you save my brother?”

Silence.

During the next several days, the shopping mall carnage is cleaned up, the bodies are released, the funeral preparations are made, the family does its work and we move to rituals of farewell.

As life begins to redefine itself, the different styles of grieving embraced by Martha and Mary continue to haunt me. My thoughts shift back and forth between the resurrection statements of Jesus and the unruly emotions connected with loss. Nothing fits together. Only occasional insights about the meaning of life and death offer any relief from the cruelty of a violent crime.

Burial

St. John’s campus church at Creighton University becomes the site of a moving liturgy. It is a homecoming celebration of sorts, since John and I both graduated from Creighton Prep; our school building was part of the old Creighton campus. The formal and labored liturgies of a pre-Vatican II church were sold to us as an essential part of our early formation. The unfeeling God of my youth has moved on and the God of unconditional love now dwells in this sacred space. That makes homecoming a lot easier. John and his family are Creighton University graduates. A cousin, Dan McDonald, S.J., from the Gregorian University in Rome, is the main celebrant.

The liturgy lifts our awareness to new heights by reminding us that the risen life is the final destiny of all those present. My brother’s life becomes a living symbol of the power of the resurrection. It becomes clear to me that he really did not die. He is in the presence of the God whom he loves in a totally new way.

I now see glimpses of John’s life reflected in those all around me. I see him in the talk of forgiveness, especially for Robert Hawkins, the 19-year-old shooter. Hawkins spent a number of his adolescent years moving in and out of correctional institutions in Nebraska, and was discharged upon reaching adulthood. His history of failure and feelings of inadequacy were reflected in a suicide note left behind for his mother and stepfather. He believed he was treated poorly for his entire life and was tired of it all. He intended to go out and take others down with him. His rage found violent expression in the carnage, grief and ruined lives of the Omaha killing day.

I heard no one, from the first breaking news to the meal at the end of the burial service, say anything about hatred, retaliation or vindictiveness. Forgiveness reflects the deep spirit of my brother.

So does peacemaking. In the fury of the shooting, John risked his life trying to get Robert to lay down his gun. Hawkins responded to him with his last expletive, then fired three bullets into John’s head and one into his leg. Because of this rage, John’s casket was closed at the service.

Hawkins then turned the gun on himself. One bullet under the chin and he was dead.

The Omaha police affirm that John’s intervention probably saved the lives of 10 to 20 people. Hawkins had plenty of ammunition left to destroy others huddled just a few steps away in another room. But apparently horror upon seeing what he had done to my brother led Hawkins to kill himself sooner than he had planned.

As it was, victim and shooter died within seconds of each other, one affirming life and the other diminishing it.

Their convoluted exchange transcended time and space. Maybe John’s efforts to reach out to Robert could be completed only in the resurrection milieu, and they were both redeemed by the action. I find echoes of my intuition in the Lazarus story.

Resurrection

It unfolds in layers while following two interrelated tracks. The resurrection promise is poetic and measured, spoken by Jesus to Martha during a teaching moment. Martha does not argue with Jesus; she understands that her brother is in good hands. The interpersonal dynamic around Mary, by contrast, is stormy, undefined and loose-ended. The interweaving of the two tracks leaves much unresolved, but it puts us in touch with a real drama of loss and emptiness.

I find Mary a more believable character than Martha, because she expresses her emotions freely. The notion that the truth in life comes from pain, emptiness and fear, and that these open us up to hear more clearly, is an unwieldy one. I heard the resurrection talk innumerable times in my life, but never so clearly as when I looked at John’s closed casket and cried again.

I also find a kinship with Jesus, who stayed outside the tomb. Lazarus smelled, so there was no doubt about his being dead. Friend or not, Jesus kept his distance. Yet if he truly loved Lazarus, could he not have entered the dark tomb to retrieve him, or stretched out his hand to him, or given him a hug, or welcomed him back with some sort of affection? I wonder if Jesus was as reluctant to enter the tomb as I am to enter the darkness of my own mind.

I struggle viscerally with the profound loss of John. I even feel some anger at times because he left his hiding place behind a pile of chairs to confront the gunman. He would still be with us as brother and friend had he not been so selfless. I still have nightmares about what happened to him during the last five seconds of his life. I was not as close to the trauma as those on the scene, but nightmarish images of the last seconds now enslave my imagination. Part of me wants to know the details, yet I do not really want to know more. That is entering the dark tomb, and it is scary and cold in there. I might not find my way back out. Besides, the tomb is the domain of the dead, not of the living. I prefer to rest in the warm sunshine in the land of the living and retain memories of my brother’s warm smile and pleasant manner as a defining image of his life.

We repeat that Jesus is both God and man, truly divine and truly human. I do not doubt his ability to bring Lazarus back to life. My brother’s death has reconfirmed a trust in God that I might have taken for granted during easier times. That grounds me.

If we say that Jesus is truly human, he was subject to the same laws of doubt, denial and uncertainty about death as the rest of us. His delayed arrival in Bethany, his desire to stay on the plane of thoughtful reflection in the presence of Martha and his absence from the interior of the tomb tell me a lot about his lived experience. I find his tears as reassuring as his utterances about the resurrection.

Deep truths flow from profound sources and evolve through messy and unwieldy experiences. We understand these realities both analytically and viscerally. To sidestep one dimension is to cheapen the other. The two dimensions of faith and hard-won wisdom always remain in an uneasy balance.

I plan to revisit the Lazarus story until I understand its layers more thoroughly. I also know that the story promises more freedom, yet to be discovered. As Lazarus stepped out into the warm sunlight, blinked a few times and thought about recreating his life, Jesus ordered, “Unwrap his binding and let him go free.”

The account gives me permission to ask some trusted friends to help untie the cloth strips that bind me, to allow my tired spirit to feel the warm sunshine and to allow my eyes to marvel at the gift of life all around me.

Patrick J. McDonald is a marital and family therapist with a private practice in Des Moines, Iowa.

Comments

Coleen Heckner | 5/17/2009 - 4:53pm
I came across this article, one month after my sister was killed by a drunk driver. Thank you Mr. McDonald for writing about your experience, it helped validate my own. I, too, am still trying to make sense of it all and there are days I want to be a Martha and there are days I want to be a Mary. Bless you and Peace
9483020 | 7/11/2008 - 9:22pm
Mr.McDonald, Please accept my heartfelt condolences for your loss. Your article is beautiful example of how the inspired Word of God heals and comforts. I was fortunate to have a wonderful parish priest a few years back who encouraged me to enter into serious study of the Scriptures in our local Catholic Biblical Studies program. Both he and my instructors would stress that the stories in the Bible are more than stories of our ancestors in faith,they are OUR stories as well. Thank you for illustrating how we all can take ownership of the Scriptures and make the stories our own.
Michelle Cerbo | 6/25/2008 - 3:37pm
It's such a blessing that you share the story of your brother's death and what you went through. I also experience my mom's death, and it's very hard to live each day with out her. I long for motherly guidance in my life. However, I realize that she's in heaven with God and at peace. Thanks again for sharing your story..and may your brother rest in peace:) Take care and God bless! Michelle
Charles Lewis | 6/24/2008 - 11:49am
This demonstration of faith in the face of senseless violence is beyond remarkable. Peace to you, Patrick, and everyone you know. Charlie Lewis
PATRICK AGNEW | 6/21/2008 - 2:35pm
Beautiful. Peace be with you, Mr. McDonald.

Recently in Faith in Focus