I have known myself snatched away into true compunction of spirit by the death of a brother monk or of a dear friend or relative. Sometimes the memory of my own half-heartedness and carelessness has elevated my soul. No doubt there are countless occasions of this sort, which can rouse the mind, through God’s grace, from its drowsiness and half-heartedness.

~ “First Conference with Abba Isaac,” 26, from the Conferences of Cassian

Tomorrow, it will have been one year since my father died. There is nothing that can make the loss anything other than that—a loss. Death, I believe as a Christian, is unnatural. Part of us all knows deep down that this is not the way things ought to be, even if this is the way things always have been.

But the ascetic tradition of the Church, and the message of the Gospel of Christ’s resurrection, allow us to temper our grief with hope and channel it to virtuous ends. I have tried, when I can, to do that.

In particular, the fathers teach that memento mori—the remembrance of death, the meditation on one’s own mortality—is one of the most beneficial spiritual practices. Indeed, as I’ve written many times, the only thing we know for certain about our own futures is that one day we, too, will die.

I have tried—and mostly succeeded—to visit my father’s grave once a week for the last year. I have picked wildflowers by the side of the road and the edges of parking lots to leave at his headstone. Their colors so full of life each time I return have faded, and their petals have shriveled. Is this not what the Scriptures say? “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8).

This summer I’ve seen that every week. I had inscribed upon my father’s marker six words from his poem I quoted in my eulogy for him: “My hope is full of resurrection.” The flowers fade, but those words remain.

Thankfully, as wildflowers are becoming less abundant, a few weeks ago I happened upon some fake flowers lying along the drive at the cemetery. Someone must have dropped them—it seems unlikely they could have blown there from another grave by the wind. In any case, I couldn’t tell where they had come from, and in fact they were scattered such a distance apart from one another that finding out seemed futile. So I took a few for my father. Now he’ll have flowers through the fall.

I usually bring one or both of my boys with me. It is somewhere to go where I don’t feel bad about very briefly leaving the car running with the AC on and parking if the little one has fallen asleep. When Aidan isn’t napping, he is cutely interested in the little anthills on the surface above where my father is buried. My dad always liked little creatures, too. And wildflowers, for that matter.

I say the same prayer for the departed every time I visit and sing, “Eternal Memory.” If Brendan is with me, I always ask him if there is anything he’d like to know about his grandpa. He usually can’t think of anything, but I think giving him the opportunity to ask is important. Perhaps in some possible world things could have been different and they could have spent more time together. But the only possible world we get to live in is the one where what has happened in the past cannot be changed, where those possibilities are as mortal as we are. We hope not for a time machine but resurrection. We want to move forward not go back.

I am well aware that dwelling on the past can be dangerous—one need not worry about me. I speak only of putting memory, which is active whether we want it to be or not, to good use. Most of all, when I remember my father, I remember the good things, not the hard ones. It is the good things that make grief deep, but they also contain seeds of hope. I hope my life contains good things worth remembering.

Memory is always active, but it is hardly under our control. We can remember something deliberately, but often its logismoi just sneak up on us through cues we sometimes don’t expect. As a tribute to my father and as memento mori for me, I offer the following in no particular order:

  • Mint chocolate chip ice cream
  • Scrabble
  • Hasenpfeffer
  • Frozen pizza
  • Flannel shirts
  • Whipped cream in coffee
  • Incense
  • Cigarettes
  • Bod Dylan
  • Three Stooges
  • Tom & Jerry
  • Little Rascals
  • Turtles
  • Frogs
  • Swamps
  • Old books
  • Old cars
  • Old records
  • Harmonicas
  • Tigers baseball
  • Lions football
  • Wildflowers
  • Brendan’s laugh
  • Aidan’s growl
  • Talking late into the night

It is amazing how a list of words can break the heart. But so long as it is “true compunction,” it comes laced with hope. As the Creed says, “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead,” and in these simple things, in a way, I get a foretaste of “the life of the age to come.”

Our new baby Erin doesn’t remind me of him yet, but no doubt she will someday too. No doubt I will continue to discover and recall more of these cues as time goes on; I will be unexpectedly transported to a place inside me of sorrow and loss; but in those things I’ll get to see him again and again and again … until I see I him again.

May his memory be eternal.

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