I have always had a sense of connection to James Agee’s A Death in the Family. It doesn’t have a lot to do with the plot of that classic work. It is instead a certain sense of connection to the author himself. I also grew up in Knoxville – much later, of course, but his descriptions of the summer of 1915 resonated for me. My family was also from around Lafollette, Tennessee. Indeed, members of my family knew members of his. As a child one of the first plays I remember seeing was a dramatization of A Death in the Family. Central to that story is the death of the father in an automobile accident on a highway I would come to know well in my own time.
He was also an Episcopalian, educated at St. Andrew’s School at Sewanee, where I later went to seminary. The School was then owned and operated by the Order of the Holy Cross, an Episcopal Benedictine order of which I have been an Associate for twenty-five years now. I have knelt to pray at the chapel altar that was the scene of another of his works, Morning Watch.
I am particularly conscious of those tenuous, circumstantial, and oh so powerful connections because there will be a death in my family. I say this now because someone I love is very sick and not expected to survive. At the same time, I say it knowing that it will be true, sooner or later, unless the Kingdom comes first. Until the Lord comes again, all of us will die; and eventually there will certainly be a death in the family.
That is a time of ambivalence for me as a priest and a chaplain. I know from long professional experience about deaths in other people’s families. I have stood at many a bedside, always praying, sometimes singing, mostly silent. I have done my best to love them from the distance of a professional position, to let them grieve as they need to grieve, calm or crying, quiet or screaming, standing or falling. I am there to reflect the love of God in Christ with patience and compassion and that professional, calm, non-anxious presence.
But this is my family; and there I am not a priest, not a chaplain. Sometimes, when my wife finds I haven’t listened as I ought, haven’t been as sensitive as I might, and confronts me about it, I answer that I reserve the right to make mistakes in my own home – and then apologize profusely. In my own family I cannot be the priest if I am to grieve properly myself. I cannot maintain professional distance without interfering with my own needs to relate and to be related to. I cannot share the feelings I need to share if I’m maintaining the calm poise that is my professional stock in trade.
I did make that mistake once. When my grandmother died I was asked to pray. It was a small request, but it became more important when it became obvious in the funeral that the local pastor, while well intentioned, did not know her at all. At the graveside the next day I was asked only to pray, but I felt a need to express a sense of the family’s loss that I thought had been missed the night before. I did a good job; but in the effort to do a good job I became distant from my family, and even from myself. In the process of doing the good professional job I lost my opportunity to grieve my own loss as I might have.
Soon I expect to be on my way back to Knoxville for a death in the family. I will once again travel roads I know so well, roads that speak to me of home and family, and of the times and places that shaped me, those tenuous, circumstantial, and oh so powerful connections. I will be in the midst of people who are part of me, as the person now sick and dying is a part of me. I may not be able to escape entirely the need to use my professional skills for the good of these people I love. I can no more entirely avoid that than can my cousin the doctor. There will be questions I can answer, support that I can give, and I will not totally withhold myself.
But I will also be sensitive to my own need. I am older now, and more aware of myself, of my needs. I know the cost of losing myself in my professional role. I may be needed at times to serve, but I will not lose my opportunities to grieve. I will reserve my right to be sad and aching and human. There will be a death in my family; and it will be important that I be there as a member of the family, and not stand separated across the divide of that calm, non-anxious presence.