I believe I was somewhere in Florida’s interior when it happened — when Kobe Bryant, his daughter and several other souls were suddenly lost in a violent flash in the fog three thousand miles away on a north-of-LA hillside. I had probably just recently exited I-275, then exited I-10 and found my way to state road 301 west on my way back to what is currently home: Largo in the Tampa Bay area. And I know that for much of the drive I’d been thinking about my son and his new wife. I was just coming from their wedding in Mount Pleasant, SC, a seaside suburb of Charleston. And I was thinking about life’s frailty, its shooting star evanescence. ( Driving on any American highway at any hour of the day will induce such thoughts.) I’d been praying for God to keep the newlyweds safe — to keep us all safe, every soul. But life is both fragile and — though we should not dwell on it — full of dangers. And the truth is that I had not, in the years prior to his wedding, bonded with my son as any father should — and should not fail to do. Now, the love I was feeling, tinged in equal measure with joy and remorse, was great. Every moment without love is a tragedy. Life is short. Love — well, it’s eternal. Cliche? Yeah. Sorry.
With Kobe Bryant and the others — it’s about sudden death. (And I cannot fail to mention the fact that no one is talking — not for very long, anyway — about the moral redemption being selectively dispensed here by the media, even in the age of #MeToo, despite lingering culpability in Kobe’s case — something wiped off the ledger; a dark episode — and how the media and the world give out passes to those they love and retain the sins of those they dislike. A previous 2005 admission of non-consensual sex (i.e., rape) would be prominent in the obituary of most of us. But, yes, that’s another matter I don’t deem necessary to speak of at a time like this.)
But back to those folks on that LA hillside — they were all alive when I left the South Carolina motel hours before on that Sunday morning on which I wouldn’t be able to get to church. Suddenly, they were gone. But — to where?
This life cannot be all there is, to borrow from that sorrowful, despairing interrogatory in that old Peggy Lee song. In that hillside flash, one tall man very famous and beloved, (as the world accounts fame and love) by virtue of his enormous athletic gifts, and several other people young and old, who thought their brief airborne transit was all about basketball in one fashion or another, were — in a flash — brought into the presence of God.
It would be a hard, empty world if that were not true. If you know any atheists — TRUE atheists — who also insist they are capable of deep love or that humanistic sort — admire them. It’s a tough go to believe that all there is in this life is what we can see and touch until, slowly or suddenly, our organic life expires and obliteration ensues. Those of us who fail to achieve any measure of Kobe-esque fame and die in obscurity will die when all memory of us and all our life’s work fades and also dies out. We’ll meet, so to speak, with the SERVPRO fate: it’ll be like we never even happened.
But can that truly be said of anyone? No, I don’t think so, irrespective of what we believe.
I had the honor of dating a young woman once who would go on to become a renowned and respected philosopher. She was young and atheistic and no less pleasant and companionable by virtue of her settled profession of non-belief in the supernatural. She did not strike me as being at all afraid of life — or death. Brave young woman. The last time I heard about her, she had adopted , as one of her areas of academic concentration, animal rights. She believed that humans, while also possessing rights in some fashion, were basically “hypostatic organic systems.” I’m not sure if that means we are inferior or superior to animals, organically speaking, or if my dogs Annie and cricket and I are basically equals. ( I know this: I know Annie was just in here sweetly whining and annoying me. If she’d been able to talk like me, she could have told me she needed to go outside to poop, which she just did on the rug.)
A priest savvy on theological matters, hearing how we’d been defined by my long-ago date-turned-philospher, reminded me that Christ’s bond with human flesh is known as the “hypostatic union.” (I’ll send you to the dictionary — I’ve been many times — to explore the various definitions of “hypostasis” but it has not entirely cleared up things for me. Among those definitions: “a settling of blood in the dependent parts of an organ or body.” No, I don’t get the connection, either. It suffices to say that my philosopher-date and the theologians are working at different ends of the same “hypostatic” block. The latter belief in eternal life, the former doesn’t. Go figure.)
Back to my son Barrett and his bride Julia. My prayer: God protect them from life’s moments of vertigo and disorientation– those moments when we can become lost in the fog and enter the realm of danger, be it physical or moral. Life is fragile. Our virtue is fragile. So are reputations. (Imagine, again, if Kobe Bryant, still early in his career, had had the misfortune of dying in the midst of that period when he was appearing nightly on national news after being accused of sexual wrongdoing by a woman. He’s being revered now as a virtual saint. Back then, he was generally suspected of being yet another high-profile sexual outlaw — and the yet-to-be-born #MeToo movement would have condemned him to its equivalent of Biblical Gehenna. Time, a long period of redemption, stardom on the court and evidence of basic decency have reduced that episode of Kobe’s obituary to — a flash in the fog. Thank God!)
Much of our culture has ceased to be religious other than in some New Age, generalized way. We aren’t, many of us, sure what we believe, even when we say we believe. Nothing plunges us into theological speculation or gets us on our knees like the news of early sudden death among loved ones or the famous and well-liked — or sudden death on the scale of 9/11 — that duel flash in sunlight.
God protect us from all harm. Have mercy on us obscure humble un-famous sinners. And bring peace to the hearts of all those left to mourn the departed as we muddle on amid life’s foggy, treacherous terrain. I gotta believe that ain’t all there is.
Addendum: A priest and dear friend and mentor was once briefly stationed at St. Aiden’s Church in Brookline, MA, the church where JFK was baptized — JFK who’s sudden young violent death in 1963 memorably plunged the entire free world into a prolonged meditation of life and death. That priest, Fr. John L. Donovan, during the course of a homily, loudly but warmly affirmed a basic Christian belief. He said to the sparse Sunday morning congregation, “you are going to live forever!! He said it twice. Once born, we live on, in this life and the next. There are the matters of judgement, of heaven, of hell, of purgatory — believe them or not as you will. But we live on.
Good old Fr. D. left this life last March 5 at age 91. Kobe left us at 41. Life goes on — and, may I say it again, must go better than it’s ever gone here. (Yeah, I’m wondering, is there basketball after this? Doesn’t matter. I was never any good at it.)
May Kobe’s soul and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.