When the Wilderness Hits Close to Home

My allergies have been kicking up at the monastery after having a fairly easy spring back in Boston. I brought enough Claritin to last my first two weeks, but I found that the incense used during some of the services really set me off. I needed stronger backup to my daily med.
But the closest pharmacy is an hour plus away. Rather than be miserable my last day and a half, I decided to drive out to get something.

Phil LaBelle, 2017.

While at the store—and back on the grid—I called to check in with Melissa and the kids, and my phone also automatically downloaded email. Since I had to make so many reservations for my sabbatical, I needed to have an email address ready, so I pulled out one I hadn’t used very much in recent years. Back when I was setting up St. Mark’s weekly email when I first arrived, I used this esoteric address as a test. But I forgot to unsubscribe it before I left. While quickly scrolling through a few emails, I saw one about a funeral.


A couple of weeks ago, I met with Christine, our sabbatical supply priest, and the church wardens about what level of contact I wanted with the parish during my time away. That very week another friend had posted on Facebook that very question as he readied for his sabbatical. “Have no contact whatsoever,” came the reply from many. “They’ll be fine without you,” others chimed in. So I told Christine that I’d prefer not to hear anything unless it would land on the front page of the MetroWest Daily News.

Seeing “Funeral Update” in the subject line from the church caused me to pause. Since it was already in my inbox, I decided to open the email about the recent death—surprised one had happened the very week of my departure. I quickly learned it was not someone who had been ill for some time like I suspected, but rather someone who died unexpectedly. I had talked to Melissa but she hadn’t mentioned a thing although she obviously knew. I called her back, and she broke down telling me that the parishioner had died of a heart attack.
Norman was a generous soul, and would often swing by to take me to lunch or to drop off a newspaper article he thought I’d like to read. He would send me his weekly schedule via email, telling me when I first arrived that he was used to having a commanding officer, and, as his priest, I was the closest thing he had these days. Two weeks before I left he handed me an envelope with some cash in it. “For your trip,” he said. “As they say, ‘Happy wife, happy life.'” We laughed, I gave a profuse thanks, and then he headed off on his way. I last saw him at the local pub three days before my sabbatical began. He was having dinner with a friend, and I sat with the parish men’s group sharing a pint. I came over and greeted him, and he told me he looked forward to seeing me when I got back. He had to miss my send off service as he was being recognized by his alma matter at their graduation that same weekend. Five days later, he died.
I lit a candle for Norman at the monastery chapel deep in the desert when I returned there, and said a prayer. Later, when I got back to my room, I wrote out my sympathies and prayers in a card I picked up at the store for Norman’s daughter and her family who also attend the church.
And I changed my mind about how much contact to have. I don’t want to see the weekly email updates—I unsubscribed that seldom used email address—because I know St. Mark’s is in good hands and will do just fine without me. But I got in contact with Christine telling her to inform me if there are any other deaths so I can send my sympathies to the family and to pray. I can’t have imagined going four months without knowing about Norman’s passing, nor for Melissa to carry the secret that long either since she was in town.
And so the wilderness feels a bit closer this week.
As I travel with Melissa in Vancouver while Norman is laid to rest, I’ll be sure that we go out and have a spectacular evening together, raising a glass to toast a truly remarkable man. He will be missed by many. May he, with all the saints, rest in peace.