By Pete Galula
I ONCE celebrated my life in the face of death — not mine but a stranger’s. It was my 20th birthday. It was supposedly a day for merriment, but I was inexplicably despondent. It seemed that something inside me had died. Yes, it was my birthday but I didn’t feel like celebrating.
I was so problematic at that time. I wanted to die. I was just lying on my bed the whole morning looking at the ceiling, until my father told me to get up and suggested that I should go to church and hear mass that Saturday.
I fixed myself and decided to go alone. It was almost noon when I went out of the house. The sweltering heat made things worse. I could not decide to which church I would go. I thought of the church that I seldom visited and headed downtown. I was there in 20 minutes, just in time for the Gospel reading.
I went in slowly. Plenty of people were inside. I didn’t bother looking at the altar. Most of the time, I just stared at the floor, contemplating my problems – family, financial and most of all, academics. I was on the brink of failure, my dreams about to be shattered.
I just stood there, at the back pews, depressed, hopeless. On the floor, I could see withered petals of flowers scattered, just like my shriveled spirit. I had lost the will to live. My musings stopped when the reading of the Gospel ended, and the priest started with his homily. Everybody took a seat, and for the first time since entering the church, I looked straight at the altar. I was stunned with what I saw.
It was my day, but I realized that it was also someone else’s. It was no ordinary Saturday mass but a mass for the dead. There I was on my birthday — the body upright and breathing but spiritless. Inside the casket was a dead man who, for those he left behind, was alive in spirit.
Shocked, I hastily headed for the exit, but before I could get out, an unknown force tried to pull me back inside. The next thing I knew, I was sitting on one of the pews listening to the sermon of the priest.
I fixed my gaze on the priest, reluctant to glance at the casket. I could hear people crying. I became restless. I tried singing the “happy birthday” song to calm myself down. I chanced a look on the casket and found myself singing funeral songs in my mind instead.
The homily was done and the mass went on. During Communion, I hesitated to go in front, but I did. It was probably one of the weirdest moments of my life. The casket was inches from where I received the host. Out of curiosity, I caught a glimpse of the dead man. I suddenly felt cold. He was still young.
There was a eulogy afterwards. I went back to the pew and listened intently to every person who spoke. I learned he was a good man who was too young to die. They cried as they recalled their experiences with him. I just sat there, sitting silently and thinking about my life. I realized it was wrong for me to think of dying. Everybody dies, but we must have the courage to live.
Before the priest gave the final blessing, he reminded each one that death is not the greatest loss in life but the greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live. I felt a dagger stab my heart.
I walked out the church door a different man. The place reeked of burning candles and incense. It signaled the dead man’s departure from this world. Outside, the sun was still shining, the flowers all abloom. It was, after all, my birthday, and I should be celebrating it on this beautiful day.
Everyone followed the casket as it was brought outside. Not far from the crowd, I stood across the street, waiting for my ride home. On the other side, the dead man’s ride waited for him, his last ride to his final home, somewhere beyond the clouds.