Mortality recalled by a co-worker's death

This summer I read a book by Stephen Puleo entitled ''Dark Tide,'' providing an historical account of "The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919." On a cold winter afternoon in the city's North End neighborhood, over two million gallons of molasses suddenly burst from a five-story high tank, quickly engulfing nearby crowded streets and causing forty deaths and many life-altering injuries, as well as severely damaging numerous buildings. Puleo skillfully describes the disaster from its genesis to its aftermath, taking the reader back to an industrial tragedy that today is remembered largely as if it were just a curious fable. Not long after finishing the chapter in Puleo's book that recounted the instant the molasses unexpectedly spilled through, followed by an onslaught shocking in its rapidity and stunning in its devastation, I experienced with others a loss almost as swift and just as tragic. A co-worker had died, the victim of a fast-acting cancer that was not detected until mere days before the end.

A month before his death, when asked how his meeting of state Catholic Conference directors in San Francisco went, our Executive Director Ed Saunders told me and the other staff members of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, Kathy Magno and Kathy Davis, that he felt "lousy" during the entire trip. A persistent cough suggested that he had a cold or infection, and we kidded him about not giving the germ to us.

Two weeks later, Ed went into the hospital at his doctor's command. A week after that, while Ed was in the midst of many medical tests, the MCC staff visited him. When we arrived, he was conversing with a high school classmate and long-time friend Father Jim Shaughnessy, a chaplain at the hospital who quietly left and graciously returned with more chairs to seat us.

Kathy Magno had brought Ed a reproduction of an old painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, created by a computer program in a way that incorporated many smaller pictures of Jesus to form the larger picture, a twenty-first century digital mosaic. It was blessed after noon Mass at Saint Joseph's in the West End, near our office. Ed was intrigued by the composition and, as we were told after his death in Father Shaughnessy's funeral sermon, he would point out the picture to anyone who came to his bedside.

A week later, on a Friday morning, we received a call at the office, informing us that Ed was dying. That night, in the early minutes of the next calendar day, he passed away. We learned later that he was advised of death's impendency only a day or so beforehand, had made his peace with God and, prepared for the end, had received the last sacraments.

The suddenness of Ed's death of course has shocked everyone who knew him or about him. For us in the office, the experience was rendered more acute in that so many of our daily working hours were spent in Ed's presence. It is one thing to lose a family member or friend that you see perhaps on the weekend; it is another thing altogether, especially in a small office, to lose a co-worker.

Close up, as a co-worker, I saw that Ed had many gifts which have been only partly acknowledged in his obituaries and in recollections among his family and friends. For example, early in Ed's tenure at the MCC, I had to attend to my wife Elaine's hospitalization and care, and Ed was generous in his understanding allowance for my frequent exits. In addition, the MCC staff became familiar with Ed's phone calls with his Aunt Agnes. Ed would dial her morning and afternoon to check in on her. She is hard of hearing and we could hear Ed from his office reminding her in ever louder tones that it was time to turn on the television Mass or the Red Sox broadcast.

Both of Ed's parents had died young, and Aunt Agnes took Ed and his sister Ellen under her wing. In response to comments about how good Ed was to his aunt, he would reply that she always had been very good to him.

''Memento mori.'' ("Remember you will die too.") On Ash Wednesday as our foreheads are blessed with ashes we are told, "Remember man that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." In Sirach (chapter 7, verse 36 in the New American Bible), it is written, "In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin." Ed's death, surprising in its speed and sobering in its utter disdain for relative youth, is a bracing reminder of our own mortality. Ed had the opportunity, as rushed as it was, to become ready when readiness really had to be reached. Are we prepared for our own transit?

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy and Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.