Sense and Nonsense: The Real Miracle

Tom and Barbara Donohue—now in Los Angeles—I had known during my early Roman days, when Tom was in the legal division of the Navy at the Embassy on the Via Veneto. When I came to Georgetown in the late 70s, they—such was my good fortune—had me look up Don and Connie Kerwin, old friends of the Donohues from New England. So one rainy, winter night, after getting hopelessly lost and soaked only a few blocks from the Georgetown campus, I finally managed, with help of neighbors, to find the Kerwin home on 45th Street. Don was a pathologist in the G. U. Medical School. He had three young children, the two younger ones adopted. Julie, the youngest, then about six (now in high school), has always been a special friend. Last Spring, with Don’s Uncle Lou visiting and his cousin-in-law, Anne, we went to Gonzaga High’s production of “The Great George M,” in which Julie, we all thought, was smashing in the chorus.

The Kerwins were a kind of home away from home for me. They included me at Thanksgiving or Easter. I used to wander over for a Monday night football game, when the Redskins were doing something. Don had an extensive beer can collection. Young Don, their son, was a fine distance runner in high school and later here at Georgetown. I have some photos of us all at a meet in Virginia in the Fall of 1978. Connie is serenely watching the goings-on; Julie is clowning with a young friend; big Don is watching the boys at the starting line. The leaves had turned in this scene, beautiful as only northern Virginia can be.

Don and Connie were a particularly well-loved couple. They belonged to the Third Order of St. Francis de Sales, and at one time, to a Jewish-Christian discussion group, and I do not know what all else. They belonged to nearby Our Lady of Victory parish, where I recall being for Julie’s First Communion. Don had been on the Admissions Board of the Medical School. He was gentle and good at his profession. He was from Waterbury, Connecticut and had gone to Fairfield University. His Uncle Lou used to come down on holidays. There would always be a song-fest when Lou was about. Lou, as Don happily told me, “did a little vaudeville in his day.” Don and Lou could sing most anything, a real delight once they were warmed up.

Don always limped a bit. He somehow had hemophilia, but we just assumed his medical profession would enable him to cope with it. He never complained, for sure, except for the inconvenience it caused others. Last year sometime, Don, now about fifty, developed a rather large tumor in his hip, which pretty much incapacitated him. After a good deal of analysis, he decided to undergo a very chancy, delicate operation at Chapel Hill, in August. I was in California for the summer, but was at a meeting in Washington in early August, before the operation. When I went over to see him, I rather knew it would be the last time. A friend of Connie and Don, who owns a restaurant on Connecticut Avenue, was over too. Don was cheerful, funny, as he always was. Nobody knew more about the mechanics of death than Don did, I suppose. He would have been the first to smile at the “Doctor, cure thyself,” admonition from St. Paul. Several weeks after the operation, Don died and was buried in Connecticut.

Due to a conference I was scheduled to attend, I missed the Memorial Mass here at Dalghren Chapel, where his son Don, now at Michigan Law School, gave a touching eulogy of his father. However, we had a second Mass at Our Lady of Victory, where Father Dick McSorley read a brief passage in which young Don said, “When we were praying for some kind of physical miracle for my father, he told me, when he was very sick, ‘You know, Don, the real miracle of my life is that I have loved and that I have been loved by all of you.’ ” At the homily in Our Lady of Victory, a passage from St. Francis de Sales was cited in which St. Francis recalled that God never takes a harvest unless it is in full season to be taken.

Don Kerwin always seemed to me to be simply a good man—gentlemanly, genuine, humorous, competent, patient, faithful, rather the sort Aristotle referred to when he told us to do in our actions “what the good man would do.” As he became more invalid, Don would read a bit each day from Father Joe Tylenda’s new translation of Thomas A’Kempis. The difference between the good man of Aristotle and the good man of the Christian revelation has, probably, mostly to do with the kind of enigmatic suffering a good man unaccountably, by our standards, undergoes. In the Third Book of The Imitation of Christ, Don may have read, “My Son, do not let the work you have undertaken for me wear you down, nor let tribulation dishearten you, but always let my promise strengthen and console you. The reward I offer you is beyond measure and without limit.”

We are a generation of Christians who seem to be taught mostly about the world, about “causes,” about staying alive, about somebody else’s injustices and protests—a kind of horizontal spirituality. That is all right in a way, but the death of a good man, a doctor who knows about death, in what ought to be the prime of his life, of a disease his profession cannot itself handle in his case, brings us back to the real miracles of our existence, however long we live, in whatever conditions of gentility or suffering, or both. The “miracle” of Don Kerwin’s existence, beginning with the very fact that he did exist, was what he said it was to his son. Such are, after all, the words we read in the Epistle of St. John: “we are to love, then, because He loved us first.” Such passages of great depth are mostly abstractions to us, I think, until we see them in the lives of friends, who were indeed good, faithful men.

James V. Schall

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James Vincent Schall, S.J. is an American Jesuit Roman Catholic priest, teacher, writer, and philosopher. He was, most recently, Professor of Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at Georgetown University.

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