The Particularity of Death

Yesterday I went to the hospital for an MRA. I filled out the usual forms–no, I’m not claustrophobic; no I’m not pregnant or breastfeeding; no, I don’t have any metal body parts–and met the usual uber-cheerful nurse. Sure, I’ll lay down on this tray and get sucked into a giant Star Trek device. I had an MRI just a couple of weeks ago, and this is all routine. I know what I’m doing.

So when the nurse casually mentioned that we would need to do an IV, I just about bounced off the tray. “SERIOUSLY?” She was amazed that I had never had an IV before: “How old are you? 37? And you’ve NEVER had an IV?” It felt like high school again, where you find out that everyone is doing it and you are obviously the nerd. I tried to explain that I react really badly to needles, but she couldn’t believe me. “You look scared to death all ready!” she laughed. Me: “That’s because I AM!”

But when they actually put the IV in and watched me reel into unresponsiveness, understanding dawned. “You weren’t kidding, were you?” she smiled. Um, no. I wasn’t. As I lay inside the giant Star Trek device, semi-coherent, with a metal thing sticking into my veins, I meditated on how Jesus was nailed to the cross, and how the metal things just stayed there. Oh God, oh Jesus, help me Mary.

Somehow I survived, and after taking a while to lay in the car I managed to drive away.  For some reason, after I got home, I felt in the mood to pick up a book by Richard John Neuhaus called As I Lay Dying. He makes a great point:

Death in the thousands and millions is different.  The generality is a buffer against both guilt and sorrow.  It is death in the singular that shatters all we thought we knew about death.

That is exactly right:  News of multitudinous deaths in a far-away war does little, or news of semi-fictional people who live real lives across town but don’t seem real to me.  But when the little Lewis girls died, daughters of my friend, it was like an atom bomb going off in the living room.  Death in general, as an idea, can be tolerated; death in the particular, in you, in me, is an abomination the mind refuses to grasp.

But it occurred to me suddenly, reading Neuhaus, that the only answer to death is Jesus.  And if we know Jesus as a generality, as an idea, then we will only be able to deal with death as a generality.  Only if I know Jesus as a particular, as a this person, will I be prepared for the particularity of my death.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.