Dying and living in America (part 2)

Benjamin Church meets World, Life on Planet Earth

Today, April 2nd, is the 8th anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II. I was a student in Rome at the time, and I came down to St. Peter’s square for the prayer vigil when he died. It was a Saturday night, and there was a huge crowd. In the several days before his death, there had been large crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square. Some of the people were praying, some of them were talking in subdued voices, some were strolling slowly around the piazza. No one was there to do anything or to see anything, because there was nothing to see and nothing to do; we were just there to be with the Pope as he was passing away.

Over a month ago, my father’s grandmother passed away, whom we called Grammy. The whole family came for her funeral. All her seven children and all her grandchildren were there; not a single one was missing. At some point I think there were 35 people in the house that Grammy used to live in, and the one that Grandpap still lives in. It is not a very large house, and we did not even spread out into the whole house: we tended to clump together in the living room, in the one finished room in the basement, and in the kitchen/dining room.

Somebody (not me) was always thinking about what the next meal would be. Although only about half of us could sit down at meals I don’t remember being anxious about it. You just stood until someone finished and gave you their seat. Normally, the idea of having so many people in such a small space in the middle of winter would have caused panic attacks, and we would have been itching to flee for wide open spaces. This time, in the wake of Grammy’s death, we just wanted to be together and no one seemed to mind at all. Once in a while someone went out to walk in the snow to stretch their legs and walk a dog, but it wasn’t too long before they were back again sitting with fifteen other people.

The whole experience made me realize that “I need my space” is a first world problem that is rather artificial. We are like castaways, refugees from the wreck of some ship, who have lived alone for so long that we get anxious when someone else is around. We have forgotten how to talk with other living human beings. We are like old nobility who have lived with the luxury of so much space that we cannot enjoy a small cottage. In this experience I learned that it is possible to live much more simply: it is possible to live with much less personal space.

This explains for me how people a hundred years ago raised sixteen children in a house half the size of my grandparents’s house. The boys slept in one room, the girls slept in another. Yes, most of the summer they were running around in the neighborhood, but after sundown and on the miserable days, they were all crammed into one room by the fire. Here is the amazing thing: they actually enjoyed being together. We need to rediscover the simple joys of life, and one of them is being with other human beings. +