The River of Life

Tucked away in the back of the closet, there’s a tie that every man has. It rarely appears, and, when it does, it is with a white shirt and a dark suit, a veritable uniform. The tie is solid black.

It is the funeral tie.

When a man touches this tie, when he slowly puts it around his neck and forms a knot, he remembers many things.

This tie is a man’s burial companion, the link among wakes and funerals spanning decades. One day, the man might even be buried with the tie. Before that day, though, it will be someone else who reaches into the back of the closet.

This morning, I went to the wake for a friend’s father. I’ve not seen my friend in about seven years. He and I and another father saw each other regularly.

Our sons attended elementary school together, and we all used to belong to the same parish. Our wives often see each other, but, the three fathers, as often happens, have lost touch.

But, we all still are friends. So, when I learned that my friend’s father had died, I wanted to pay my respects.

There’s a certain look that you see among men, and it only is at wakes. When you express your condolences to a man, his eyes moisten right away. He does all he can to suppress tears, but you know he is grateful that you are there.

This was the look I had at my mother’s wake with my funeral tie. Friends traveled far distances to be there. Even two ex-girlfriends showed up, with their parents, too, which astonished me. It meant a lot to me to see them.

But, as these things go, the receiving line was long, you can spend only five seconds with each person before you move to the next one, a seemingly never-ending line of people. I was drained by the end but was so moved that 700 people were there. It made me realize that I too had to show up.

Because of my childhood, wakes and funerals are exhausting. But, this Saturday morning, I take out a crisp, white shirt, a dark suit, and that tie that comes out only now and again. I remember my mother, and my chest tightens. I remember friends who died much too young, tragedies that still are incomprehensible to me.

Every man will tell you that grief, true and deep grief, comes in waves. Its sting might lessen over time, but it never truly vanishes. A part of us always mourns for the dead, and that is a good thing. It means we really did love them, and they really did love us.

We long for them.

At the wake, I shake my friend’s hand with two hands. When his eyes moisten, I cannot help but give him a hug. I can’t believe you’re here, he says.

I was very moved, I say, to read the obituary, how your father emigrated from Italy, was one of nine children, how hard he worked as a carpenter. He must be so proud of you.

My friend’s eyes moisten again. We need to get together, he says.

Yes, I’ll follow up.

He introduces me to his mother. Her eyes are glazed and fragile, a look of shock and piercingly deep, deep sadness. I pause.

Gently, I offer her my hand. Nonna, I say with the greatest of care, I am so sorry for your loss, my condolences. Her eyes moisten, and she softly thanks me.

With that, I say goodbye to her. Five seconds.


There’s a very powerful metaphor in the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures: God is a river, teeming with life, coursing through a parched desert. Everything the river touches instantly becomes cool and vibrant and alive.

Much of the Middle East is very hot and dry, and the occasional oasis must have appeared like a miracle.

I like rivers, I like them a lot. There’s something life-giving about them.

I’ll end this post with a video from last weekend. If you turn on the sound, you’ll hear birds, and the steady and calming sound of riffles. If you look closely, you may see some bugs flying around. A more careful look may show a trout quickly sipping a bug off the water’s surface.

A river is full of life, in perpetual motion. It conquers death.

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3 thoughts on “The River of Life

  1. Well said. I’ve experienced far too many funerals of family and loved ones so early in my life, but from this experience I learned that death is part of life and the people you care about will always stay with you. I also learned from this that life is not a straight path upward. It’s a series of ups and downs which requires perseverance and positivity to get through.

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