Note on My Unexpected Absence
On Death and Desire—and Active Love as an Antidote
This is not the kind of essay that you’re used to finding here. Instead, it’s an update on what’s been happening in my life over the past few weeks.
I expect to be back to more of a regular writing schedule later this month, but this newsletter will never be quite the same. The events of the past few weeks have been an impetus for me to dig deeper into many things—most of all myself. That includes re-evaluating the things that I want to talk and write about the most. You’ll get more, not less. It will be different in kind, not just degree.
If you’d like to know what’s been going on, please read on. Otherwise, I’ll be back in touch shortly with new developments about what I plan to do here (things that were in the works even prior to the events that have unfolded)—I think you’ll appreciate them.
Thanks for your patience. And thank you, as always, for reading.
A Brief Update
My beautiful mom, Ida, died on Monday after a ten day battle in the hospital. I was given the gift of being able to hold her hand and pray with her at her bedside. She made us laugh right up until the end, even in the midst of her suffering.
My wife Claire and I never expected we’d endure something this traumatic together just a few months into our marriage. Nobody expected this. We thought my mom had 20 years left to live, maybe more. But it was not to be.
When it became apparent in mid-October that something was wrong, I canceled a planned trip to Portugal at the last minute; Claire and I caught the first plane to Grand Rapids. We didn’t realize that we were flying home to help my mom die.
As an only child, it fell solely on me to understand and communicate to the doctors what I believed my mom desired (comfort measures or aggressive treatment) as she slipped into a state in which she was unable to communicate. I did this while simultaneously trying to care for my dad—who many readers know by now suffers from Alzheimer’s-related dementia. Up until two weeks ago, my mom was his primary caregiver.
This is the reason for my hiatus from writing here. I thought it was time to drop you all a short note to let you know now that I’ve found a moment to catch my breath. I’m not sure how much longer my break will need to last, but I expect to be back sometime in November with a new focus.
I’ll still be inside the crucible, but letters from the inside are rare and precious. It’s easy to transpose ourselves outside of it for the sake of communicating something less than what we really want to say—on social media, at work, or in quotidian conversations with people who are each terrified to express the deepest desires of their hearts, or their suffering.
It’s easy to mimic the words and sentiments of those around us, but sometimes things happen that pierce the veil. Deep calls unto Deep. We are forced to journey alone to a place to do battle, and we struggle to find any earthly models to follow.
The events of the past week are one of the major inflection points in my life. In my mom I have seen the horror of death and the beauty of life co-existing together, in the same time and place and in the same body. I see a bush burning but not consumed. Fire all around me—a wise fire, burning up anything and everything that is not essential.
My writing here will take on a broader scope moving forward, something I’ve wanted to do for a while now anyways: First things. Last things. Love. Family. Vocation. These are subjects that matter deeply to me, and I’m going to write more about them.
In the end, I believe life is a question of what we have learned to desire—of what we most desire when we die. And since we never know when it will be our time, it’s always a good time to take stock. I have been.
I’m consoled by the outpouring of selfless love that my mom gave so many people right up until her last breath, which came early in the morning on the Feast of All Saints—November 1, 2021—after she held on for a few final days. She desired to give herself completely to others, and I am the primary beneficiary of that selfless love. She inspired me to do the same.
There’s a scene in Brothers Karamazov where the old, saintly monk Fr. Zosima counsels a woman to practice what he calls active love. Zosima promises that if she practices it, she will find rest for her soul. He urges concrete acts of love—attending to the immediate needs of the people around her.
That takes sacrifice. It also requires hard work and perseverance. It’s a “harsh and fearful thing” compared to love in dreams, Zosima says— the kind of illusory love where we imagine ourselves to be generous and caring for others. Yet we tend to ignore the real human needs that surround us daily in our neighbor, our family, our friends and colleagues; we subordinate them to love in dreams. It’s easier to love “humanity” than the person who publishes an opinion we don’t like.
One of the dangers of thinking and speaking about desire (including mimetic desire) too much is that it can become a kind of abstract, Platonic desire—desire “in dreams.” Meanwhile, there are possibilities of active love that surround each of us daily. Active love cuts through any confusion. It’s the real ‘antidote’ to the thin, mimetic desires that pull us in a thousand different direction.
Active love is an incarnational way of living that takes the immediate and the concrete seriously: all creation becomes a sign pointing us in the direction we need to go. Attend to the person in front of you, Fr. Zosima says—attend to the real and immediate needs of the people entrusted to your care, and you will find rest for your soul.
Even in the midst of great pain and confusion these past couple of weeks, I have known exactly what was being asked of me—exactly what I needed to do, and what I wanted to do. There was a feeble, IV-riddled arm with tiny, boney fingers reaching out toward mine, clasping my finger the way that a baby does its mother. In this case, the hand was a mother gripping the finger of her own baby.
All life is beautiful, even when it appears extremely ugly. Even the darkest moments can be transfigured into something beautiful. I’ve cried many times over the past couple of weeks. I cried because I was losing my mom, and because death is terrible, and out of confusion and fear and all sorts of other reasons. But sometimes I cried because I saw or heard something so beautiful that my heart overflowed—because I caught a glimpse, a flash, a shimmer of perfect beauty.
My mom was an artist. After she passed, as I attempted to write a eulogy for her this week, I read Pope John Paul II’s 1999 Letter to Artists. These words struck me at my core because they so beautifully summed up my mom, but I think they offer wisdom for us all:
Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality's surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery. The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one's own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things. All artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendour which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit.
I will try to do for you what my mom did for so many—sharing a glimpse of the splendour and beauty that sometimes flares for a moment in the depths of my soul. I hope you do the same for me.
Spend time with someone you love over these next few days. They are short. Momento mori.
May the rest of our days be a continual strengthening of the deepest desires of our hearts.
Thank you to all who have reached out with kind words of support. It means more than you know.