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Counting and redeeming our losses

Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia
Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia
Sarah Gath,

In Malvern, Pennsylvania, there is a mass grave of 57 Irish immigrants who died while working for the Philadelphia and Columbia Railroad in 1832.

The men died mostly from cholera, but some were murdered, the result of a toxic blend of superstition about disease and the Irish.

They just stopped writing home, just disappeared. Their families never knew what happened to them.

In the 1990's, professors Dr. William Watson, Earl Schandelmeier, and John Ahtes of Immaculata University discovered the records, researched the event, gained recognition for the 56 men and one woman.

On March 9, 2012, six of the bodies were moved to West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. Amtrak halted further excavation and exhumation because the graves, in a place now known as Duffy's Cut, were too close to the tracks.

Amtrak values the right of way above the men who built it.

Some things don't change.

St. Peter's Church in the Great Valley is a few miles away. The church is older than the country, dating back to 1744.

I worship and volunteer there, including tending the old cemetery.

Some of the names are lost to the decay of the stones but others are clear.

If anyone remains in those bloodlines, they don't know it or don't feel a connection to those buried in the yard.

They just disappeared.

Sometimes while I'm working there, I will read a few names aloud. It feels powerful and proper to say a long-neglected name.

When I lived in Richmond, Virginia, I volunteered on the CROP committee with a man named Galen Heckman. I can't remember his face now but I remember his kindness, and I recall the words of his pastor at Galen's funeral. "It was a life well-lived and well-loved."

That's been my goal ever since. I don't know how to get there.

My brother, Tim, died two years ago this week. My mother just sold the beach house that became hers alone after my father died on Thanksgiving 2013.

Besides all of that, in the last two years, I have moved twice, changed jobs, and separated pending divorce.

It's odd how I can name all of the losses so easily. It takes more effort to see that I have also made new friends, gained new skills and sharpened old skills, joined St. Peter's, become a Mason, become stronger and healthier and more confident and comfortable.

Death is interesting because the contrast teaches us about life. We lose and we suffer and we hope to reduce and redeem the pain by finding meaning in it.

When we find it, we're at least no longer angry because the world seems fair again. Life took this but then I got that and so it seems like we're even.

Those are kindergarten rules.

We have to guard against the ex post facto prophecy, the thought that, "Because <good thing has happened>, I think that's why <bad thing happened>."

When a mature tree falls, it opens space in the canopy and sunlight reaches the ground. That light may nourish a seed that, in some 30 years, will serve the same function as the previous tree, but the new tree is not the same and it doesn't actually replace the tree that fell.

It's not magic. It's just the scientific result of seed + tree + sun + earth + water.

Faith doesn't point to a miracle in hindsight and say, "See! I thought so!"

Faith expects good, even in times of loss, in foresight. Meaning, which Viktor Frankl said was essential for sustaining ourselves in times of suffering, looks beyond the pain and loss to a landmark on the other side.

We navigate to that landmark, focusing on it rather than on the pain of the journey.

Loss is an opportunity to build anew, without the effort of first cleaning or clearing the foundation. It takes deliberate and willful action, combined with faith when faith is present.

Either way, redeemed loss is the result of choice and work.

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