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Monday, March 23, 2020

As the Days of Noah

Construction of Noah's Ark | Guido Reni | circa 1608 CE
It was disconcerting, seeing his name scratched out like that. He had died along with his cousin and a girl from another high school in a terrible crash. They'd cut classes and the girl, who was driving, tried to beat a log truck across a one-lane bridge. She didn't make it, and so none of them 'made it.'

Counselors were sent in by the school district in the event anyone was distraught and needed help with the loss. I only heard of one classmate speaking with a counselor. The rest of us eschewed such weakness, as we saw it. Stories circulated about how terrible their bodies were torn up, becoming more elaborate and exaggerated with each re-telling. Students were excused to go to the funeral of the cousins, which was held for both at the same time. Pretty much the entire high school went, which was perhaps about 200 students,.

Hey, it was a rural school district.

I had the same opportunity as everyone else to work through feelings of grief, and aside from initial shock followed by sadness, I came through it just fine. A jarring moment still came one day, as I looked over the shoulder of the shop teacher at the grade and attendance book. My eye was drawn to the row with a line through it, and to the left the name of one of my dead classmates. A weird thought about him getting credit for the time he was in school that year cross my mind, running headlong into the reality that grades were no longer of significance to him. Whatever he had done with his short life was done, in the past, and over. There was a sharp feeling of futility that lingered with me for days.

"...in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark..."Matthew 24:38

My paternal grandmother once told me that the end of the world happens whenever someone dies, for that person who has died. Even as a child this offended my theological sensibilities, as I knew from Catholic teaching and Baptist Vacation Bible School that the second coming of Jesus would be the end of the world. Still, her words have stayed with me through the years, and I see it now. Crisis interrupts our lives, and death ends it for each of us. This has been especially in mind of late, as the COVID-19 virus has spread from China to Italy and on to the rest of the world.

A few weeks ago we all had other plans. Engaged people were not far from wedding dates, stores had promotions in the works, sporting events were scheduled, high school seniors were looking forward to prom and graduation, and parties were being planned for all manner of reasons. Now we find ourselves staying home and laying low, hoping the novel coronavirus passes over us and goes away. We yearn for news of a treatment and a vaccine, while we watch the news and wonder who we know that we will lose before this is all over. More immediately, many who are out of work are anxiously awaiting word that some help will come from the government to pay rent and buy groceries. 

This is life on pause for most of us, and life at and end for too many. There are steps we can take, like limiting interaction with others outside our homes, practicing social distancing, and washing our hands. These are small actions that collectively can make a big difference. At the very least, we can legitimately feel that we're doing something while we watch the days pass by out our windows. It should also serve as time for us to consider what we have done so far, as individuals and as a society.

Although the grades and attendance notes were of no consequence to my sadly absent classmate, that isn't to say that he, his cousin, and the young lady they were with that fateful day accomplished nothing. Through their lives they interacted with family and friends, creating and leaving memories that matter to those who carry on. Their passing brought about the sifting of wheat from chaff of the deeds of their lives, as it is for each person who goes the way of all the world. 

None of this is to say that grades and other markers of personal success are insignificant. Rather, they're put into context by our mortality. Had my classmates graduated, the education obtained as well as the diploma would have opened doors for them, leading further into the lives they could have had. It's important, I think, not to confuse such stepping stones and mile markers with actual value created. The sort that we make with the people in our lives, whether family, friends, or strangers. Personal character and the deeds that flow from it defines the contours of our lives.

And so, as in the days of Noah, we've gone from working, marrying, attending conventions, and gathering with friends to celebrate occasions to face the unexpected. Unlike that mythical time, we are not captive to the will of a capricious deity, and most of us will make it through this one. Moreover, while we wait for the inevitable treatments and vaccine brought to us through scientific research and modern medicine, we do the little things to make meaning out of all of it.