Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.
Of all the things in this world that I want to learn more about, death is not high on my priority list. Nor do I ask why God allows some to live long, happy lives while others die too young. There are just some answers that won’t satisfy people completely, no matter how hard they try to make sense out of nonsense. And yet here I am now, sitting in my dorm room after a memorial service for one of my professors and asking questions about the people who die, the people who mourn and the God who heals all.
Today the English department at Calvin College held a memorial service for William Vande Kopple, one of the most popular professors in the department, who died in the early morning of July 3 this year. When students, staff and faculty received the email saying that Professor Vande Kopple had passed on at age 63 only a week after being diagnosed with cancer, the reaction was the same: “how could this happen?” A lot of people thought it was a joke, that the professor was pulling a prank on people, and that he would pop out of the casket at his funeral saying “Just kidding, I’m still alive!” But that wasn’t the case. I’ll never have a class with him, I’ll never get to go on the New England Saints trip with him as one of the supervisors, and I’ll never have the chance to know him in the way that so many others did.
It’s one thing to mourn for someone you know and love. But it’s another thing to mourn for someone you really wanted to know in person but never had the chance. The questions that came up for me today at the memorial service were a little different from the questions that Professor Vande Kopple’s students and colleagues had, though the conclusion we came to was very much the same: he died too soon.
I’ll be honest: I feel cheated. Almost as soon as I walked into the chapel I had a nagging feeling that I didn’t quite belong there, that I was intruding on the grief of those who knew him and loved him. They had a chance to learn from a man with a lot of humor, a lot of wisdom and a lot of encouragement. I did not. While I was looking for a seat I saw a girl that I didn’t get along with last year. Even now I can almost imagine her looking at me and thinking “What is she doing here? She never had Vande Kopple. She doesn’t belong here.” And to be honest, I don’t think I would’ve disagreed with her there. Why did so many others get to learn from and be encouraged by such a great man when I, a twenty-one year old writer looking for the right questions to ask, the right answers to accept and the right direction to find such things, be left with very little in comparison? Why did I have to go to the chapel intending to pay my respects and instead feel like a hypocrite who goes to church just to get an ego boost?
I don’t know if I’ll ever have satisfactory answers for any of these questions. I may end up spending a lot of time trying to come up with answers that sound comforting but, in reality, is just wishful thinking. While we can quote something like Romans 8:28 over and over again, there will still be times where we’ll just have to heave a great big sigh and say “You know what? We’re just kidding ourselves. We can come up with as many answers concerning God’s will as we can, it’ll still never make sense.” The longer we remember things like 9/11, shootings at a movie theater and at schools across the country, the Boston massacre and the deaths of people in our community, the more we realize just how much we can and can’t deal with. That’s not to say we can’t be comforted, but it just won’t be as easy as we might think before something beyond our comprehension takes place.
But here’s a truth that we can, if anything, take at least a little comfort in: we’ll be okay. Professor Vander Lei, one of my favorite professors at Calvin, said that “we mourn, but as Christians we don’t mourn as those without hope.” What can keep us moving forward is the fact that things will eventually get better. Death has lost its power, and soon there will be a day when we’ll have nothing to fear, when tears will be a thing of the past, when we have at last found Heaven’s Light. We may not see it, but it’s true. It just might eventually take a while to know that in our hearts as well as in our heads.
Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso saying “So long.”