Notes From the Front of the Line

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Notes From the Front of the Line

This past Saturday morning, we received a phone call we’d been expecting. My wife’s mother, Jean, who had been in long-term care, passed away.

That makes four this year: two mothers and two good friends.

Chuck Colson was the first of the four. I served as Managing Editor of BreakPoint, Chuck’s daily radio show, working with him almost daily on that and other projects for four and a half years. Since leaving, he and I continued to work together on project.

The news of Chuck’s death crept over me like a rising tide. I knew he was gravely ill and the news that he passed didn’t surprise me, though it seemed unreal. It continued to be unreal until his memorial service at National Cathedral. It was there, weeks after his death, that it struck me that Chuck was gone.

Meanwhile, my mother, Anne, was 86, working out daily, and still hard at work as a travel consultant until she came down with pneumonia in February. From there it was a quick downhill slide until her death at the end of May, 10 days before her first great-grandchild and my first grandchild, Matthias, was born.

I’ve called home every Sunday to talk with my parents since 1968. Last Sunday I had the urge to talk and remembered that there was no longer anyone to call. My dad died 19 years ago and now the last familiar and comfortable voice had been silenced.

After years of illness, my neighbor, Lap, died two weeks ago. Lap, a retired judge, was larger than life with a strong Southern accent, a naturally exuberant voice, and a passion for University of Virginia football. He called me “old friend,” I title I own with pride.

One day, when our wives were both out of town, Lap came over and I made “guy food” — steak, potatoes, and mushrooms. As the mushrooms were sautéing, I spied some crumbled blue cheese in the refrigerator and tossed some in the pan. Lap’s eyes lit up, he relished every blue cheesy morsel at dinner, and talked about those mushrooms for years even as his memory grew dim.

Then on Saturday, it was Jean’s turn, two weeks before a family reunion at her retirement village. I wish she lasted another couple of weeks since, above all, Jean loved her family. Her days were spent planning visits to see children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren and stockpiling gifts for each one for every occasion.

Chuck, Mom, Lap, and Jean were four very different people, but they were indivisibly linked by a common faith in Jesus Christ. And it’s that thought that gives me comfort as I suddenly find myself at the front of the line on the journey from birth to death.

Thomas Howard, writing in the May 2012 First Things, reflected on the deaths of two very different men also linked by Christian faith. Robert, a death row inmate with whom Howard developed a friendship through letters was executed for murder. Archduke Otto, “heir to the Habsburg thrones and to the erstwhile Holy Roman Empire,” died of natural causes.

After Archduke Otto’s elaborate funeral service in Vienna’s cathedral, his body was taken to the family tomb for interment. Howard relates the dialogue at the tomb’s door.

An official knocks loudly on the sepulchral doors with a staff. 

“Who desires entry?” says a voice from inside the doors. 

“Otto of Austria; once Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary; Royal Prince of Hungary and Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria, and Illyria; Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow; Duke of Lorraine, Duke of Upper and Lower Silesia, of Modena, Parma ... Princely Count of Habsburg and Tyrol, Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia and Istria ... Grand Voivod of the Voivodeship of Serbia ... [the pedigree goes on].”

“We do not know him.”

A second knocking.

“Who desires entry?”

“Dr. Otto von Habsburg, President and Honorary President of the Paneuropean Union and quondam President of the European Parliament, honorary doctor of many universities ... [again the august list].

“We do not know him.”

A third knocking.

“Who desires entry?"

“Otto, a mortal and sinful man.”

“Then let him come in.”

Death is the great leveler. At death there are no archdukes, prisoners, worldview authors, travel consultants, retired judges, retirement village residents, or columnists. There are only mortal and sinful men and women who have or have not received the grace offered to them. Because of the triumph of the Cross, we who have nothing to plead except “Guilty” can become immortal and holy trophies of divine grace.

Death is neither pleasant nor pretty. But even in the face of death Christians can and must maintain hope in grace and the promises of God, hope that is life-changing and life-sustaining even at the front of the line.

Publication date: September 26, 2012