A deadly crash on the Feast of the Assumption
The car flipped over 10 times. Maybe 15. I woke up to steel smashing against cement, over and over, over and over. Glass shattered and flew in my face and hair. The sun peeked out from the grey horizon—upside down, then right-side up. The car landed on its hood with a final, ugly crunch. I had my shoes off in the back seat. The springs under the seat had mangled my toes on my right foot. I found my Chuck Taylor sneakers with the wrap-around American flag design. In a daze of habit, I carefully bent down, pulled them on with no socks and tied them tight, as blood oozed out from the tongue.
I stood up. Glass and grit kicked up into my eyes as 18-wheelers roared by at 80 miles per hour. The red sun cut through the twilight. My sister hugged me, bleeding and screaming. My grandma limped over to check on my grandfather. He was lying face down on the shoulder 30 yards away. He had been thrown from the car, the only one not wearing a seatbelt. It was 25 years ago on Aug. 15—the feast of the Assumption of Mary, when we celebrate Mary being assumed body and soul into heaven at the end of her life on earth.
How do we process pain and loss? It is hard. It takes time. Our bodies’ first reaction is simply shock. Fear freezes us. A disaster happens fast, and it is awful, and it is not in my control. The car is smashed and upside down. My grandma says, “He’s dead, he’s dead,” and hugs us. I hurt everywhere. A dull ache: inside and outside, physically and emotionally. He is gone.
Tears mean you are alive. Sorrow, especially sorrow that is shared with others, is like a stream that begins to flow through the pain.
Days later, at home, I missed the first days of my junior year of high school. I was planning to try out for the fall musical, “Bye Bye Birdie,” at my all-boys Jesuit school. I asked the doctor if I could still run track in the spring. “I don’t know,” he said. The physical pain was quieting down. Gooey blood congealed into scabs. Most of all, losing my granddad left me feeling like I had a hole in my heart. I remember crying a lot with my sister, mom, dad and grandma. Sometimes other people, too—friends from school, youth group and cousins.
Tears mean you are alive. Sorrow, especially sorrow that is shared with others, is like a stream that begins to flow through the pain. The stream slowly turns a waterwheel that grinds the grit of suffering into flour for bread. Hugging, crying and talking that sometimes turns into laughter. “Remember when granddad hooked his ear when we went fishing? And he was wearing that blue denim shirt—he loved that shirt! And his orange truck! Where did he get that truck?”
There is a time for quiet, too. But suffering in silence, trying to tough it out in silence, that is lasting death. Look at a rusted-out factory with brown barbed wire. Without tears, without words, we are petrified.
The grit of suffering, ground into flour, mingled with salty tears and now becoming bread. The anger starts to fade.
Over hours and days, we talked through what happened. Our grandparents took us on a trip out West. We saw the Grand Canyon and the red rock formations in Utah from every cowboy movie and the sequoias in California. We were driving late, so late it was early, to drop off the rental car and catch a flight. Was there some gravel spilled on the road? Or the steering went out? Or....
The Jesuits from my high school came to visit. My youth minister and youth group came to visit. People brought casseroles—so many casseroles! Nine-by-13-inch glass dishes covered with aluminum foil: Italian, breakfast-for-dinner, Mexican, Chinese chicken, even green Jello salads. Gifts and offers of more gifts: “If you need anything, let me know.” “I can come over again tomorrow if you want.” My English teacher offered to let me skip the summer reading novel, Killer Angels, which I had put off and put off. “Thanks, Mr. H. That would help me a lot.”
We were and are a Catholic family, but praying together out loud was not something we had really done, except at Mass and in offering grace before dinner. But in those days, we did pray together out loud. We weren’t great at it. Sometimes there were tears, sometimes awkward silence. It did help. I prayed by myself, too. At Mass. Before I went to sleep. I talked to God. I told him I was sad that granddad was gone. The two of us often went fishing, played golf, talked and went to lunch. And now he was gone. I loved him and was grateful for our time together. And I told God that I was mad, too.
Jesus has a hole in his heart. So do I. Maybe you do, too. His love can flow into my heart, and mine into his if I let it.
The tears and meals, talking and hugging and loving—it all helped me. It unfroze me. Praying with sorrow, gratitude and anger. This is honest prayer, from the heart. The grit of suffering, ground into flour, mingled with salty tears and now becoming bread. The anger starts to fade. Did I want it to fade? Maybe I could hang onto it, keep it going, pour some gas on it, fan the anger flame. But who would that help?
Healing was flowing into my life, slowly yet powerfully. The wounds remained but were not so painful. The scabs dried and peeled off. Soft, sensitive skin lay beneath. A few scars remain. I know I am not the only one with a hole in my heart. When I share this story in a homily or on retreat, people always come up to me afterward. “Father, I’ve lost someone I love, too.” Or: “I have cancer. I know those tears and casseroles.” How can we find healing amid the trauma and loss? “Whoever believes in me, streams of living water will flow from within him” (Jn 7:38). The soldier pierced his heart with a lance as he hung on the cross. Out flowed blood and water, the sacraments of the church. Later, the risen Jesus invited Thomas to touch the wounds.
His wound heals us; grace and mercy pour out of his heart and into mine. Jesus has a hole in his heart. So do I. Maybe you do, too. His love can flow into my heart, and mine into his if I let it. He is the bread from heaven. But it is bread won by his blood. This is communion, life in Christ: letting others share in my pain, that I may share in his redemption. Then, somehow, we become eucharistic, a little bit at a time. I receive his body and blood into my body and blood. Then I can walk with others in their pain so they can walk with him, too.
I saw the sequoias again a few years ago. I love long runs. I do not like long drives. I have granddad’s picture on the shelf by my bed, next to an image of the Sacred Heart. He is in his formal army uniform from World War II, smiling. I love him. He loves me. I talk to him. He listens. He was there when I entered the Jesuit novitiate a few years after the accident. He was there when I was ordained a priest. The life of Christ flows in me, from the wound in his heart into the hole in mine. I pray for life with him forever.