Bear with me as I profess a very heavy statement, that I must tell you I mean with all sincerity: this past weekend I experienced one of the rare moments in my time on earth when I felt the absolute weight of what it means to have life.
Over the course of 48 hours, I was reminded of what it feels like to be in love with living and filled with gratitude, thanks to the Manresa retreat, which as any past participants can tell you, can only be described as an immensely life-giving experience.
Simultaneously in those hours, I learned that Joe Blanda, whom I went to elementary school with, had died. I had never felt the weight of the world so entirely, all at once filled with seemingly untamable love for my stage in life and also a grievous reminder of how precious and uncertain life can be.
I must be candid with you, I did not know Joe very well. However I couldn’t help but be rattled by the loss of a young life that was so clearly lived with enthusiasm, courage and reverence for all aspects of existence. From what I knew of Joe, he lived every moment of his life with passion. This fact is no secret to anyone who shared even a small part of his life with him.
As I went through the motions of Manresa, a weekend that is centered around love of God and love of one another, I couldn’t help but think of Joe. He embodied in every way what it means to be a “man for others,” whether that meant leading the Western Reserve Academy soccer team with his goalie skills or starting a foundation to fund research on the rare strain of brain cancer, Glioblastoma, he had. He took a situation that would put some eternally on their knees and rose to the occasion, combatting adversity with joy and affection.
An hour after the retreat ended, a weekend that reenergized my love of the present moment, I found myself surrounded by the past that Joe and I shared.
Judging by the crowd in attendance at the calling hours, one thing was clear: there was no shortage of love in Joe’s life. As I walked to the back of the line to pay respects to his family, I was greeted by every person who played a role in my young life: teachers of my past, friends whom I shared my entire childhood, mentors who changed my life and admittedly, the occasional teacher whom I was still afraid to disappoint. It was everyone whom I wanted to see again, but under circumstances I could never anticipate.
For four hours, the funeral home was nothing but a constant stream of love, which of course, is all due to the immense love that Joe gave to the world. I have no way of describing the experience except for having an overwhelming understanding of just what a gift it is to be able to experience life.
When I was able to pay respects to Joe’s family, his mother gave me advice that I would like to pass on. She said that as a young person, when one inevitably faces hardships, to keep Joe’s memory at the front of your mind. She said very tellingly that Joe faced every bit of struggle with joy and courage, and that she learned through his life that no hardship is impossible if you go about it in such a way. Joe, to me, embodies the Jesuit ideal of “AMDG,” or living for the “greater glory of God.” Rest in peace Joe, you will be greatly missed.