A couple of nights before my father died I was sitting with him in his hospital room. I had trimmed his beard and hair—I had never done either before, but we both knew that soon he would need to look his best. There was nothing more, therapeutically, to be done for him. The cancer had done its grim work. A cold compress on his forehead was the last palliative offered him against the fever. He felt awful. His eyes were closed. He was very still.
The Browns and the Dolphins were playing a Monday Night game but neither of us were watching. Still, football had been the most of what Dad and I had in common so I tried to strike up a bit of conversation about the game, tried to hold onto him and us for as long as I could. Dad never opened his eyes, just raised his hand slightly and said, “Shhh. Let’s don’t talk.” Except for “I love you” next morning as I took my leave, never to see him alive again, those were the last words he ever said to me.
I am not sure why I am telling you this story. There are other things I might say. It is just that for one reason or the other my thoughts have been with Dad the last couple of days. And it is Holy Week, too, when the message—the reality and memory and expectation—of death is almost palpable. Death is coming. For all of us it is just a matter of time. That is our lot, the human predicament.
But there is promise, too, of course. We believe in the resurrection of the body: Jesus,’ our loved ones,’ and our own. But those promises are so tangled up with the predicament that sometimes, like now, it is hard to know where to start or how to talk about it. Maybe that is not so unusual.
As I read the narratives again and again of the crucifixion and the empty tomb, I notice how much silence there is. Everything seems muffled and muted. If at Jesus’ birth there were choirs of angels and royal visitors and even the wailing of infants, as he dies the mob falls silent and so do his disciples. Saturday is quiet as the grave. Even Sunday morning there are less words than gasps, at least at first—as if no words are sufficient, right, appropriate, equal to the miracle.
There will come words, of course, joyful and celebrative testimony and proclamation, words of praise and thanksgiving, wonder and amazement. But even days later, on that morning when the disciples found Jesus on the beach making them breakfast on a charcoal fire there was…silence (John 21).
Perhaps when we are faced with the truest and deepest mysteries silence is the most authentic response. When our eyes come to focus on either the tragedy of suffering and sickness, brutality or death, or when they see the hope which answers all that, the light that shines in darkness, our tongues rightly go still as voices choke on swallowed words.
“Shhh. Let’s don’t talk.” Let’s just be here, together, in life for as long as we can, in death whenever it comes, in resurrection. Let’s look. Let’s listen. But, “Shhh.” Maybe Dad was teaching me something very important that night, one last lesson, a lesson I have as yet to learn.