A number of people I personally knew passed away in recent years – three high school classmates, two cousins, a boyhood friend, and the architect husband of another cousin.
Last Sunday a person I did not personally know died in a helicopter crash together with her 13-year old daughter and seven other individuals. His name is Kobe Bryant. Many people do recognize his name. After all, he was an NBA legend, spending his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
My three classmates, my two cousins, my boyhood friend, the architect husband of my other cousin and Kobe were all successful in their own lives. They all had a career to be proud of and lived their lives to the fullest. It would be the wrong message to inculcate in anybody’s mind that Kobe was more successful because he was more famous and richer.
My reaction when a person who has been terminally sick for quite sometime dies is that of relief – relieved that the person is now free from pain and relieved that the caregivers, who are mostly family members and loved ones, are now free from all sorts of stresses.
With Kobe it was different. My initial reaction to Kobe’s death was shock. I was stunned. It was so sudden. At 41, he was too young to die. He was at the peak of his life. With a beautiful and young family, who would ever think that death would take two of its beloved members?
But death has its way of teaching the living.
Some people may say that my three classmates, my two cousins, my boyhood friend, and my cousin’s architect husband were luckier because they lived longer than Kobe. After all, they were already ‘seniors’ when they died. They saw their children grow up as adults and build their own families. Kobe has been deprived of all this.
But does it really matter in one’s life who lives the longest or who is more famous? I like to think that when it’s time for us to go, the most important question to ask is: Where are we going?
If ever, the death of Kobe has gotten my attention to the fragility of life. Goaded by the realization that we would not live forever, I sometimes wonder, as a catholic, what afterlife really is. Or is there really an afterlife?
No one that I know has come back yet to explain to me what life after death is or how life is in heaven. Trying to solve this conundrum is really making my head spin. My theology classes in college have not been any help to my imagination that heaven is like a beautiful garden, a paradise out there somewhere where everyone is happy in the company of God and their loved ones.
The Book of Revelation provides a physical description of heaven: the New Jerusalem with walls of jasper, gates of pearls and streets of gold. But such imagery just conveys the beauty of heaven and fails to conform to what I was taught that heaven is a state of existence for the soul, where one experiences the beatific vision.
During my recent trip to the Philippines, I visited a Jesuit friend whose knowledge of theology is impeccable. For many years, he taught theology at Loyola School of Theology before he retired.
During our brief conversation he calmly told me and my wife that he is ready to go. He is in his 90s. But what struck me the most were his comments that we don’t really know what life is after death. He said that our faith teaches us that there is life after death, but how that life is experienced remains a mystery.
Every time I recite the Creed during Mass it does not say whether our resurrected bodies will be the same as our human bodies. I find this to be another testament to the veracity of my Jesuit friend’s assertion about afterlife – there are many things that we simply do not know.
As shown by Kobe’s death, life on earth can be so short. Fr. Manny Non, SJ, our religion teacher in high school defined time as a “tiny toothpick floating in the ocean of eternity.”
But what’s common between Kobe and my three high school classmates, my two cousins, my boyhood friend, and my cousin’s architect husband is the memory of people who have been close to them when they were alive.
With my three high school classmates – it’s the time we partied together and nervously walked to the dance floor.
With my two cousins – it’s the time we talked about the years we were growing up.
With my boyhood friend – it’s the time we played basketball and drew strength from each other especially when we lost to a much stronger team.
With my cousin’s architect husband – it’s the time he generously gave me and my wife some of his treasured books and CDs.
With Kobe – I may not be close to Kobe, but I would never forget the 60 points he scored against the Utah Jazz in his last game in the NBA before he retired in 2016. He was unstoppable. His legacy as a player will be unmatched.
In life, memory matters more than anything else. Memory is what remains.