Death Doesn’t Discriminate

We all must beg God’s mercy

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It was a Thursday afternoon. I was working from home and had just finished a coffee break with my wife when one of the neighbors called through my front screen door, “Come quickly. There’s been an emergency.”

I rushed to her house, where another of our neighbors from the block, an elderly lady, was on the phone with 911, talking through tears to a Spanish interpreter. Her husband had collapsed in the bathroom, and she feared the worst. She didn’t know what to do. So I ran to her house, up the stairs, and into the bathroom. There her husband lay, in the tub, feet splayed out, head slumped on his chest.

He had been prepping for a shower, after which he and his wife were planning to go out to dinner. He tarried, and she went to see why he delayed. He was unresponsive, so she hurried to her next-door neighbor’s house. Luckily, she had the presence of mind to cover his intimate area with a cleaning towel.

I approached him and called his name; no answer. I tapped his leg; it was stiff. I checked his vitals; no pulse, breath, or chest movement. It was, indeed, the worst.

The police and paramedics soon arrived and pronounced him dead, apparently by natural causes. There would be no more dinners out for him.

The police queried the decedent’s wife. She was in shock. Had they made any arrangements? No. Was she Roman Catholic? Yes. Would she like them to call a priest? Yes. Which parish? She couldn’t recall — the one in town. The priest’s name? No idea. Spanish Mass? Yes.

One of the officers, who was himself Hispanic, said he would phone his mom, who also attended the Spanish Mass. The other attending officer said he attended the English Mass. I’d been to both, though it wasn’t my regular parish (I go to the one across town), and I too couldn’t remember the priest’s name.

Once family members began arriving, my wife and I and the other neighbors cleared out. A mortuary had been called, and the final disposition was being determined. There was nothing more for us to do but offer our condolences and support.

Back on my front porch, my neighbor and I watched the emergency personnel file out. He had been in line at the DMV when his wife, the one who’d come to get me, called him to come home. He filled me in on some of the details of our now-deceased neighbor’s history. He had come from Mexico decades ago, settled in the Bay Area, and began working, like so many of his compadres, as a gardener. He was hardworking, industrious, and frugal. Over time, he hired a work crew, purchased a home, and amassed a small fortune by investing in real estate and the stock market — approximately a million dollars’ worth of holdings in each.

But the financial crises of 9/11 and 2008, and some unwise speculation (which he blamed on swindlers), wiped out most of what he had acquired. Along the way, he became estranged from his adult children (he was living with his second wife at the time of his death). In the end, all he had to his name was the house in which he lived and eventually died, and some minimal cash reserves.

He and his wife had a roof over their heads, yes, but they also had stomachs to fill. The man was nearly 80 years old and still worked several days a week (cash only, please) with gnarled hands, dutifully pushing his lawnmower up a ramp onto the back of his pickup at the crack of dawn, throwing in the rest of his equipment, and heading out into the rising California sun to labor for his and his wife’s daily bread.

From my porch, my neighbor, a financial adviser, marveled at the ability of this man to create wealth from nothing more than the sweat of his brow, and he lamented its loss. He had tried to help him get his books in order, but the man had become skeptical and untrusting. In his mind, there were vultures and scammers everywhere — in the government, at the banks, even in his own family. “He died with nothing,” my neighbor said. “He had no inheritance to pass on, and nobody really to give it to.” It was a tragedy, this turn of economic events. “But his troubles are over now, and for that we should be grateful.”

Yes, indeed. He has gone to meet his Maker, humbled by life’s circumstances. But what difference would it have made if he’d met Him having lavished a great inheritance upon grateful beneficiaries? Perhaps, to those of us observing from afar, his final days might not have seemed like such a tragedy. All he labored for would line the hands of his loved ones. We could find satisfaction in the knowledge that the financial security we all seek he had achieved — and passed on.

But you know what? Our friend still would have died naked in the bathtub. “La muerte” would have come for him just as suddenly and ruthlessly had he been wealthy. At that dreadful moment, a millionaire’s earning potential is emptied of all its meaning. For the rich, death still comes, and then the judgment. We’re all sinners subject to death’s brutal inevitability, and we all must beg God’s mercy.

So “let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, and the rich in his humiliation, because like the flower of the grass he will pass away. For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls and its beauty perishes. So will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits. Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised those who love him” (James 1:9-12).

 

Pieter Vree is Editor of the NOR.

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