The Catholic Thing
On the Passing of a Beloved Neighbor Print E-mail
By Randall B. Smith   
Wednesday, 14 November 2012

One of the problems of having friends in graduate school is that you can’t keep them. No one wishes for one’s friends to move away, and yet, the longer they stay, the worse it is for them. Graduate school is a transient state one passes through on the way to something else; it’s not permanent (thank God). 

So when your friends go on job interviews, although you hope they get the job, you know that if they do, they’ll be leaving. And if they leave, you won’t have them around to shoot the breeze between classes, have cookouts together on the lawn, or play softball in the summers. 

By the same token, if they stay, there’s no future for them: they won’t have jobs, a regular salary, a decent place to live, classes of their own, a real life. 

If they stay, the stipend will end, the graduate school will no longer keep them on the university’s health insurance, and they’ll be consigned to that hellish limbo called “adjunct faculty,” a status one wouldn’t wish on one’s worst enemies, let alone one’s dearest friends. 

I remember the summer one of our friends who had actually finished his dissertation but didn’t yet have a job (even though his Ph.D. was in the sciences, something marketable, unlike mine), considered going over to Denny’s to apply for a job as a waiter.

One of the guys on our softball team teased him mercilessly saying: “You know what they’ll say over at Denny’s, don’t you? Oh sure, you’ve got a Ph.D., but what about publications? Here at Denny’s we expect at least two articles in major journals.” 

Fortunately Dave got a job before the summer was out, which meant we had to play the rest of the summer without him. We were sad to see him go, but his departure gave us all a sense of hope that there was life beyond graduate school: beyond the studying and the classes and the silly papers no one would ever read – a real life rather than just endless preparation for real life.

Now of all the things I was hoping life would not be like, graduate school would certainly top the list. And yet, as it turns out, there is this one noteworthy similarity: friends can’t stay – life being, in its own way, as transient a state in the end as graduate school.

My beloved next-door-neighbor is dying. He is in his eighties, and the cancer that was in his prostate has moved into his spine. The doctors give him six months, give or take. 

Good neighbors become part of the comfortable fabric of your life, like the Japanese maple tree in the back yard or the creaky porch in the front. Most days, you don’t think about them. But they bring stability and joy because of their presence, and something very crucial would be missing if they weren’t there.  So too with good neighbors. 

You don’t have to see them every day to know they’re there. You see their trash out, their lights on in the evening, their paper on the steps, and their car in and out of the drive: signs of life, as the saying goes. 

They have their customary patterns as you have yours, and you can mark your day by them. “Mr. Rowland was up early this morning,” my wife and I say if his car is missing when we go out, or “Boy, Anthony is up late tonight” if we see his lights on later than usual. He cares for his yard in a certain way, keeps his hedges trimmed nicely – so much better than mine – and always diligently sees to the leaves in the fall. Except for this fall. You don’t have to see him every day to know something very crucial would be missing if he weren’t there.

A neighborhood is a common good, and a common good is not merely an aggregation of private goods. If it were, you could lose a unit, replace it, like a light bulb, and things would go on as before. But that’s not the way it is at all. To lose a member of the community is to diminish the whole, to change the essence of the place. 

And yet, here’s the problem: we can’t keep Anthony indefinitely, any more than we can keep forever that beloved maple tree. Time and God don’t work that way. I can’t keep Anthony any more than I could hold on to my friends in graduate school. To wish for him to stay indefinitely would be to wish something horrible for him. 

Anthony’s beloved wife, that miraculous French woman Colette, has been dead now for several years, and he’s been wondering, as older men sometimes do after their wives have passed, why he’s not yet joined her. 

He’s a wise Christian man and knows that his life is not his own: that God must still have some work to do – on him or with him. But this doesn’t keep him from occasionally entertaining the unavoidable thought: When will I be with my beloved wife again? 

            It’s not clear yet when Anthony will get the call to move on to a real life – with the only real “tenure” that’s not transient or illusory. I know that when the call comes, I will miss him greatly. It would be a cruel friend, though, who would try to keep him a moment longer than his appointed moving day. My only concern now in the meantime is how to help him pack for the move – and how I’m going to cope when he’s gone. 

No doubt, when the time comes, I’ll need his and Colette’s help in the days that follow.

Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (13)Add Comment
written by G.K. Thursday, November 14, 2012
Profound. I am reminded that St. Augustine said this when his mother, St. Monica died:

"as I lay alone upon my bed, there came into m7y mind those true verses of Thy Ambrose, for Thou art

'Deus creator omnium,
Polique rector, vestiens
Diem decora lumine,
Noctem sopora gratia;

Artus solutos ut quies
Reddat laboris usui,
Mentesque fessas allevet,
Luctusque solvat anxios.'"

Confessions, Liber IX, Caput xii
written by Sandy O'Seay, November 14, 2012
Professor Smith, Thanks for this excellent and thoughtful article. The "Catholic Thing" is one of my favorite web sites and I visit it daily. However, could you be a bit easier on the the adjunct faculty -- I understand that it may not be ideal for a newly minted Ph.D. looking for a career, but there are many of us, myself included, who work a day job and then teach on the adjunct faculty at night, for the joy of the material and the inspiration we receive by being around the students. Very truly yours, Sandy O'Seay
written by Jack,CT, November 14, 2012
Mr Smith,
Beatiful piece of "Art' really.I am
reminded of ST thomas Aquinas,"Of all the prayers
the most meritorious,the most accaptable to god
are prayers for the dead,because they imply all
the works of charity,both corpord andspiritual'

We hold on to our loved ones as you mentioned,
I for one just lost my aunt and I AM ON DAY 8
of a novena for her.
I pray for your friend and you I pray your sorrow
be eased by the Lords Grace,
God Bless you ,
PS; Dear friends please remember all the poor
souls in your prayer
written by Jack,CT, November 14, 2012
Thank you G.K.
written by Frank, November 14, 2012
This real story is touching and the personal reflections of the author as he copes with the impending loss of a friend. Many things go through the mind of family, friends, and the cancer patient so let the author have his reflections about adjunct faculty. Even though I'm a prostate cancer survivor, the story is not about me although I can relate to the reflection. And with all the politeness I can muster, this story is not about you either.
written by Randall B. Smith, November 14, 2012
Dear Sandy,

I have undying respect for the work adjuncts do. Please note, however, that with regard to "adjunct" faculty, there are two categories: those who have regular jobs during the day, with full salary and benefits, who adjunct for fun in their spare time. This would be the proper sort of adjunct.

Then there are those the university uses and abuses, paying them almost nothing to teach classes with no health benefits. This is an improper use of adjuncts, but it is even more common now than the first. Some newly- minted Ph.D.s have to accept such "adjunct" status for years, cobbling together various teaching jobs at a number of different institutions just to make ends meet. This is not something one would wish on one's worst enemy, let alone one's dearest friends. It is also, in my humble opinion, immoral for universities to treat young, powerless scholars this way. In either case, however, these "adjunct" faculty often do excellent work and are invaluable to the university. I just wish administrators would treat them and pay them in accord with their true worth, which rarely happens.
written by Mack Hall, November 14, 2012
Well and truly said, Mr. Smith. In my retirement I am pleased to be a part-time adjunct at a nifty little community college. As a Viet-Nam veteran, a former bum, a former LVN (I was the first male nurse I ever knew), and the survivor of a diversity (sorry) of life experiences, and as a Medicare-card-carrier, I am privileged to be just a bit of a rebel (for the right causes); the desperate young adjuncts live in daily terror, and that is statism in education.
written by Trish Powers, November 14, 2012
Wonderful and thoughtful writing as always. Love Anthony, (and loved Colette) and can appreciate his longing and our sadness in losing him
written by G.K. Thursday, November 14, 2012
God bless you, Jack, as you mourn and remember your Aunt in prayer!
written by G.K. Thursday, November 14, 2012
Alas, it was ever thus for most poor scholars. Recall all those copyists at the University of Paris in the 12th century? Many of them were penniless scholars paid by the word. Generally a scholars life has always been difficult. Those fortunate enough to be able to have a good job as a scholar, whether teaching or researching, are the exceptions to the rule. In the past, religious life has been an option for penniless scholars. Not so much today ...
written by Jack,CT, November 14, 2012
@GK thanks,God Bless You as well my friend.
written by Gwen, November 14, 2012
Dear Randall,
Last week my husband was rushed into emergency bypass surgery, at a Catholic hospital thanks be to God, which was successful and miraculous in ways that go way beyond the time I have here.
A few days later our beloved Baptist neighbors went shopping for the ingredients to make us chicken soup when the wife Karen began to experience chest pain. Just to check it out they went to our local hospital and they decided to keep her overnight for observation. Exactly one week after my husband was transferred downtown to the Catholic hospital for surgery, Karen was taken to the exact same hospital for emergency surgery by he same exact surgeon. Thousands of people prayed for my husband, offering Masses and Adoration for him and our priest friends offered their Masses for his healing. He was sent home in excellent condition 3 days ago and continues to improve daily.

Karen however had a ruptured Aorta going into surgery and is now in ICU on life support. She is a 53 yr. old mother of 4 boys who love the Lord and wish to serve Him. Her husband texted me a few minutes ago: "She had a bad day but is still with us."
Looking out my window tonight I am between a precious husband who is upstairs resting and healing by the Grace of God and a lovely neighbor who always had the patience for our little girl whenever our boys would head to their house for nerf wars or legos. Her windows are dark and her house is empty. She is close to death, but in that Catholic hospital she is also closer to Christ than she has ever been before. Please pray for Karen.
written by debby, November 15, 2012
dear gwen,
as a former Baptist now Home in the Catholic Church 31 years, i can testify that your comment "she is also closer to Christ than she has ever been before" is not a mere sentimental idea but fact. i will pray this day (Thursday-the Institution of the Holy Priesthood and Eucharist) for His True Presence to enfold your dear friend. May His Sacred Heart renew both your husband's and your friend's physical hearts and eternal souls. Mercy, Sweet Jesus!

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters