One Brutal & Tragic Sweep Of DeathThursday, June 25, 2009
I have written about my fascination for Robert E. Lee twice
here and here.
In the Houston airport on my way back from my Austin school reunion I found a book which I had wanted to buy for a long time. It was Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel (1974) The Killer Angels which is a fictional recreation of the battle of Gettysburg. In one of the blogs I cite above, I wrote of a book written by his son Jeff Shaara years later that featured a young captain in the Mexican American War called Robert E. Lee. It was a passage in Shaara pére’s novel where Lee contemplates death and redemption that brought to mind a singular experience I had with Brother Edwin Reggio CSC at the Assumption Cemetery which is not far from the St. Edward’s University campus. This is the beautiful passage about Lee which occurs late on the night of Thursday, July 2, 1863, the eve of the final stage of the battle of Gettysburg:
…He felt a grave drowsiness. The horse [Traveler] nuzzled his ear; he smiled and rubbed the delicate nostrils. Then he began to drift off. He should go into bed now, but he was not comfortable lying down; he could not breathe. It was better to sit in the night alone with the beautiful horse standing guard above him. It was not so bad to be an old man, drifting. Soon to see the Light. He wondered what it would be like to enter the Presence. They said there would be a fierce blinding light. How could they know, any of them? He wondered: Do you see all the old friends? At what age will they be? Will I see my father?
I had been unaware of this cemetery back in 1961 when I graduated from St. Edward’s High School. It was in that year that all my teachers, Brothers of the Holy Cross, where all alive. They were there at our graduation. I never saw any of them again with the exception of Brother Edwin whom I visited with Rosemary and Rebecca two years ago. I had further found out that all of my teachers with the exception of a very few (Brother Edwin) had all died, some like Brother Francis Barrett at a young age but most of them in their 80s and 90s. I asked Brother Edwin to take me to the cemetery.
The Congregation of Holy Cross has a separate little corner in the Catholic cemetery. There are some nuns and priests but the bulk of the graves are brothers. My beloved Brother Hubert Koeppen has a cross but it said Notre Dame. He is buried in a cemetery that must be adjacent to Notre Dame in Indiana.
I asked Brother Edwin where he was going to be buried. His answer had all to do and depending when he died. It could be in one corner or another. If someone preceded him that corner would be taken. I took his portrait and soon I was overcome by a bitter sweet nostalgia for all the brothers who had made me be the man I am today. I felt myself smiling and I could not figure out why. It has occurred to me in retrospect why I did so. I can answer Robert E. Lee’s question about heaven. His friends will all be there as mine were that morning at the Assumption Cemetery just like I last remembered them (or as Lee would remember them) in 1961. All at their prime.
My classmates tried to find the cemetery later that day but were unable to locate it. They convinced me to accompany them and show them the way. I returned and watched them in silence as they walked from one grave to the next. I had seen the brothers all alive that long ago date in 1961. That memory had been repeated when I had visited the plot with Brother Edwin. For my friends it seemed to be different. It seemed like all of the brothers had all died at the same time in one brutal and tragic sweep of death.