My brother-in-law, Jerome Vertin, died in Chesapeake, Virginia, in hospice care at about five A.M. on February 25. My sister, his wife of sixty-three years, was with him when he died. She said that he seemed most peaceful in death. I thought: “This is the reality that marriage vows prepare a couple for, the ’till death do us part.’” But we are Christians. Death is not a final parting, but a “passing over,” as they now say. We wait our turn. Death is an end that is also a beginning.
Here in the house where I have lived for the past four years, we have seen the deaths of some thirty-five men, most of whom I have known. All were more or less the age of my brother-in-law (85). In fact, a couple of them went to the same high school with him in San Jose. The pattern described by my nephew of his father’s last days is familiar. Men gradually cease to eat, lose consciousness, sleep, and die. This attentiveness is the respect we owe them. Dying men visibly remind us of ultimate things. They quietly teach us what we find difficult to imagine.
St. Ambrose gave a famous sermon at the death of his brother, Satyrus. It appears as the Second Reading in the Office for All Souls’ Day. Pope Benedict cited it in his encyclical Spe Salvi—we are saved in hope. “Death is not a part of nature,” Ambrose explained.
God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life was condemned because of sin to unremitting labor and unbearable sorrow and so began to experience the burden of wretchedness. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.
Death is both a remedy and a punishment. This passage is a warning to those scientists who want to rid us of death in this world in order to keep us alive as long as possible. With no sense of resurrection, they dicker with a this-worldly hell if they succeed. Ambrose was right. Immortality in this world without death is a “burden” that makes all other burdens seem light. Life quickly becomes the never-ending plodding on through monotonous decades with no inner-worldly or transcendent purpose.
My brother-in-law’s sister is the wife of my youngest brother. They lived close-by to one-another for many happy years. A brother-in-law, like siblings, is just given to us from nowhere sight unseen. He is the man who discovers your sister. Jerome Vertin was a steady and familiar figure in my life. He knew things about business, investing, and finance that I had little clue about. In his free time, Jerry printed; he liked to refinish and restore old furniture to its original beauty. He and my sister had two children and adopted another. He died in Chesapeake because that is where his son, a retired navy master-chief, settled.
Over the years, I visited Jeannie and Jerry as they successively lived in Hillsdale here in California, in Portland, Seattle, Santa Barbara, Scottsdale, Richardson, Texas, Steven’s Point, Wisconsin, Medford, Oregon, San Marcos and Winchester in California, Boise, and in Chesapeake. These are mostly places in this world that I would never have seen or even heard of without their being in one or the other place for a time. Families move! During my last years at Georgetown, it was a comfort to have them fairly near-by. I could take AMTRAK out of Alexandria and, in a couple of pleasant hours, reach Newport News, then the closest stop to Norfolk and Chesapeake.
My brother-in-law was always involved in his local parish, often seeing to it that things were done. Pastors came to rely on him, but he was not about to become a full time sacristan. He seemed to know more about the rubrics of Mass than I did, which may not be saying much. He was in the insurance business, worked for many years for Sentry Insurance in Steven’s Point. He was also a careful and persistent reader. He studied scripture and philosophical issues. Several pastors relied on him to teach or explain difficult issues of Catholic thought. He was always clear and accurate. He was kind but did not suffer fools gladly.
Usually wives out-live husbands, but one must go first. One thinks of his sister now a widow. Anne Burleigh pointed out to me how frequently scripture is concerned with widows, as if they need their own special attention, which they do. My brother-in-law was a good man. In this world, it is a good thing that a human life ends, at four-score years or whenever. Death looks to resurrection. Not to know this truth is a form of despair.