September 8, 2006

Twenty Something / Christina Capecchi

Keeping our loved ones close

As children, my siblings and I pretended that thunder meant Grandpa Jim was bowling in heaven. If it was extra loud, we would gleefully declare, “Strike!”

When my grandfather died, my mom was 19 years old. She wrote down some memories of him to share with her future children. It worked; growing up, Grandpa Jim captivated our imagination and evoked our admiration.

His picture is perched in the corner of Grandma’s living room across from the fireplace. He is a steady presence—black hair, a freckled face and bright eyes—smiling down on our gatherings.

When my brother, Tony, graduated from college as valedictorian this spring, Mom pinned a tie tack on him that her dad wore when he accomplished the same feat. Grandpa was right there with Tony.

The bitter reality of death is that the loss never ends. But if we do our part, neither do the memories.

Five years ago, nearly 3,000 Americans died in terrorist attacks that shook our country to its core. New York City officials recently released the tapes of 1,613 emergency calls made as the World Trade Center towers burned. I can’t imagine the bittersweet pang of hearing the voice of a deceased loved one—so distinct, so intimate, so lively.

Catholics believe in the sanctity of life from the womb to the tomb, and every blessed moment in between. We are called to both defend and celebrate life. That includes celebrating your own life, being gentle with yourself, silencing that critical inner voice when you stare in the mirror.

Young adults often take life for granted. We fly along, feeling invincible. But one sight makes me pause: a roadside memorial. A cross and bouquet staked in the ground serve as a sober reminder. Life can end in the blink of an eye.

My hope is that each roadside memorial represents a tiny fraction of an ongoing tribute, that stories continually spill out, provoking laughter and sustaining a spirit. “She would’ve loved this play.” “He would’ve loathed this policy.”

Last spring, I took a basilica tour. When the leader collected our lunch money, she paused by a priest. Without hesitating, the woman sitting beside me, Ruth, jumped up and paid for him. “Isn’t your birthday coming up, Father?” she asked. When Ruth returned, she told me, “That’s what Bill would’ve done.” Bill is her late husband.

What a beautiful, model response to death, to remember a person’s admirable traits and live them out.

I spoke with a bereaved mother, Patty, who’s been doing just that. Her 11-year-old son, Jacob, was abducted nearly 17 years ago. Since then, the math teacher has given educational speeches, founded a support group and persuaded the passage of federal legislation to protect children.

Patty told me her motivation: “I’m fighting for Jacob, and the world he knew and believed in—and it was good.”

The Church is bound by a communion of saints: St. Paul, Blessed Teresa, Aunt Helen, Grandpa Jim and us pilgrims on Earth, striving to do them proud.

This communion can hold special meaning to young adults seeking guidance. At a crossroads, we can tap into their wisdom—and honor their memory.

I wonder what moments bring loved ones back for others—when they smell a pipe, when they lick the mixing beaters, when they shoot the moon in cards, when the Cubs play the Cardinals.

And when it storms, my grandpa Jim knocks those pins down.

(Christina Capecchi is a graduate student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. E-mail her at †


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