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Understanding

As I stood among the crowd at Father Hoff’s burial, nothing made sense. The summer sky was a brilliant blue. The hot, humid air hung like a blanket, holding within it the sweet scent of the 70-foot-tall sentinel spruce that stood silently nearby. The sound of the mourners filled the air as they sang a hymn. It was beautiful. But death isn’t supposed to be so beautiful. What was the sense of it all?

The service itself was short but significant. The priest read from the Bible. Friends and family followed along. The Lord’s Prayer was more quietly cried than spoken. As most of the mourners moved on to their other worlds, though, I stayed. I stood by the open grave trying to make sense of it all—life, death. I was trying to understand.

What was to understand? Certainly not the cause. The cause was cancer. But the why. The WHY? That’s what I couldn’t understand. In 1992, with my dad’s death, the why was also questioned. At the time, Father Hoff respectfully and reverently sent my family a dark green Boston fern to help us understand. For the last 12 years we’ve nurtured the fern, sustaining its life in memory of one that was lost. The fern still flourishes in our living room, and as I left for Father Hoff’s burial I gently clipped off the finest feather to take with me.

With most mourners gone, I stood by the grave and dropped the feather, releasing it from my world to Father Hoff’s. Its final resting place became the top of the casket. The fern’s feather, given by Father Hoff in honor of my father, was back home again. Home where it belonged.

The summer sun rose higher and hotter and the mid-morning mist melted from the grave site. The workmen began covering Father Hoff’s grave. As they finished, there were only two of us remaining. The other person, unnoticed until now, was a young women, perhaps 25, with long black hair, dressed in a respectful black dress, black shoes and dark sunglasses. I turned to her. “How do you know Father Hoff?” It was my simple attempt, taught to me by my compassionate, counseling wife, to try to help others in time of need. From behind her sunglasses she spoke with tears that tore through the silence. “I was just a student.”

She then hurried down the hill that was home to 126 identical white marble headstones. She walked to the parking lot, entered her car and drove back into the world of the living—the world of opportunity and hope.

“Just a student.” The phrase kept running through my mind. Seldom has so much been internalized, expressed and remembered as those three words. To Father Hoff, she was not “just a student.” She was a wonderful individual with opportunities and hopes. That was Father Hoff’s special gift. To each student, staff and stranger, his sincere smile, his caring character and his service were his essence.

And now, it seemed, that was gone. Why?

Standing there, alone, with no one to talk to except Father Hoff, the hot summer wind whispered to me. It was a conversation of understanding. His essence was not gone. His life, even after his death, continues to serve as an example for others. His love and his gifts and his examples remain alive in everyone who knew him—even those who thought they were “just a student.”

And they are alive in me. In the two years since his death, I’ve remembered him daily as I strive to emulate his essence of compassionate Christian service. His life has become ingrained in me as I serve others. I am a better Christian because of Father Hoff’s gifts to all of us.

Why did he die? Now I understand: We are to follow in his footsteps of service. From death comes new beginnings, for all of us.

Greg Park is assistant athletic director for business at Xavier.

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