Saturday, February 02, 2013

SGT Saffar Arjmandi (1977 - 2006) -- part 03

Monday was the eighth anniversary of the death of SGT Saffar Arjmandi, of whom I wrote a couple of times while I was deployed before.  This year, for some reason, my grief moved to the front burner and I felt soul-scalded again.  It wasn't like that last year, or the year before. Not a day goes by that I don't think of him, and miss him.  And though the poignancy of recall aches a bit, always, the intensity of grief this week caught me off guard, again.

Grief is like that.

Some years back I shared a snippet from the spiritual legacy of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, murdered by the Nazis just not long before Hitler's suicide and the end of the War in Europe.  I found myself this week back with Bonhoeffer:

Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love. And it would be wrong to try to find a substitute. We must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time, it is a great consolation, for the gap -- as long as it remains unfilled -- preserves the bond between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap: God does not fill it, but on the contrary, keeps it empty, and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The gap gaped this week.

On Monday, a former ROTC Cadet classmate of Saffar posted some paragraphs on facebook from an email I'd sent out the Saturday morning of Saffar's death.  I'd been up all night on the red-eye from California to Dayton, which I'd booked Friday afternoon hoping against hope to be able to tell Saffar one last time that I loved him.  Instead, literally as the boarding door was closing, I heard Kristen's step-father telling me that Saffar had just died.

I don't usually sleep on aircraft, and I spent that cold and dark flight trying to remember to breathe.  I clung to the wonder and awe I'd felt for so long at the fact that our paths had ever crossed in the first place.  By rights we never should have become friends, and certainly not family.

I'd forgotten about sending the email that Lindsey quoted in her facebook post, and I finally managed the herculean effort needed to open up the mail archive and recover that email I'd sent on the morning of 28FEB06.  I moved around on autopilot that morning, and it seems now, from the distance of the better part of a decade, that I experienced a non-alcohol-induced blackout for several days following Saffar's death.

Now that I've been in the military a while, I cringe at how I phrased some of what I'd written, but hey! I wasn't in the military at that point, and I'd only a week earlier met with Catholic-priest-recruiters from the Army for the first time....  Here's what I wrote to Saffar's friends that morning:
     My thanks to CPT Sam, MD, for letting you all know of Saffar's death in the early hours of 28 January 2006.  I received the phone call from Kristen's step-dad literally as the door of the plane was being closed, so I called Sam to ask him to pass that information on to you.  I never sleep on planes anyway, so with no movie on board, I had lots of time to pray and cry and give thanks to God for Saffar's all-too-short presence in my life.  It's now 0630 EST and I'm stuck in the Detroit airport for 2.5 hours until my flight to Dayton. 
     Ever since I heard the news of Saffar's death, a line from one of the prayers I pray often at Mass has been running through my head:  "When we were lost, and could not find the way to you, you loved us more than ever."  That is, of course, one way to translate the Greek text from the Gospel of John, which more literally might be translated "you loved us to the end" -- i.e., to the 'nth' degree. 
     When I first met Saffar, he was perhaps the most virulent anti-religionist I'd ever encountered, and that's saying something!  He was "over" it.  He wanted nothing to do with it, or so he said. 
     But I found out that he would go to  Mass in Bellarmine Chapel, every so often, and even more so, once he got to know Fr. Bischoff ("Father B"). 
     That seemed just a bit odd for someone so against organized religion, but I didn't mention that fact to him. 
     When he broke his neck, and suffered so much pain and indignity consequent to all the medical poking and prodding and sawing and poisoning, I had occasion to speak with him about death and dying and faith and grief and fear and sadness. Not a whole lot had changed in his outlook, but he knew he needed more than he had, especially when the Army discharged him from ROTC, perhaps the biggest blow of all.  Fortunately, Kristen stood by him, even though they'd known each other barely a year (368 days, to be exact) when he was told he had cancer.  Her love and loyalty, combined with his Airborne Ranger mentality, enabled him to endure privations and pain beyond telling. 
     I suspect it was through the love that Kristen showed him that he began to open to the possibility of there being an even greater love possible and present in his life. 
     Imagine my surprise when, after he'd been seemingly cancer-free for a year, he told me that he and Kristen were participating in the RCIA group (for people seeking to be baptized as Roman Catholics) at UD, where his mentor had made him a "Ranger Rosary" which Saffar delighted in!  I didn't really say much, because I didn't want to put any pressure on them about becoming Catholic, but I must say, I was pretty jazzed. 
     They'd asked me to participate in their wedding, scheduled for October, 2005, and I'd told them that would be a bit difficult to arrange, since neither of them was Catholic, but we'd work something out.  I flew to Dayton for Saffar's 28th birthday last May, arriving fairly late the night before his actual birthday.  All day that Friday, both he and Kristen kept apologizing for how "out of it" they were.  Only the next day, when he and I took their dog Macie for a long walk, did he tell me that earlier on the day I arrived, the doctors had told them that not only were his tumors back, but they were so close to his spinal column that he probably only had a month at most to live.  I was flabbergasted. 
     (An aside:  in typical 'rangersaffar' fashion, he outlived their prognosis by a bit more than seven months.) 
     He also confided in me that he had come to experience the presence of God in his life, through Jesus, and that was helping him feel at peace, even in the face of possible paralysis, should the tumors squeeze his spinal cord.  I was never so much in awe of him and his courage and strength as at that moment. 
     I twisted their arms to get them to move up their wedding from October to June, even though I would not be able to be there because of a commitment with the Jesuits I simply could not break. 
     When I spoke with Saffar on the phone the morning of the wedding, I'd never heard him so happy.  So many of you, from XU, from the Army, and from UD were able to participate in one way or another, it buoyed his spirits tremendously.  Afterwards, he mentioned to me in particular how much it meant to me that so many ROTC buddies came, from all over the world, on such short notice.  I felt bereft at missing the celebration, but was grateful they'd gone through with putting together a wedding in just two weeks' time. 
     I was able to see them in Dayton in July, after my 30-day silent retreat ended, and then not again until after I got back from Thailand.  When I saw him in October (the weekend the wedding had been planned) I was taken aback at how bloated he was from the steroids he was taking.  He was clearly much weaker than he'd been, and was having more and more trouble swallowing, as a result of the tumors in his neck.
     I found out at midnight on a Friday night that he and Kristen were being baptized at UD on that Sunday, and was fortunate enough to get a ticket on the red-eye Saturday night.  I showed up at their apartment without having told them I was coming, and since Kristen was in the basement when I arrived, Saffar wouldn't answer the door, and was getting pretty annoyed at the fact that whoever was there wouldn't stop pounding on the door.  I saw tears well up in his eyes when he finally saw that it was I.  Kristen's jaw dropped.  I had to fly right back to San Francisco immediately after the Mass, because I had a grant renewal due, so I didn't even get to go out to lunch with them.  I'm so grateful for credit cards!  I wouldn't have missed that occasion for the world.  Much to my chagrin, I was unable to get back for Saffar's Thesis Defense.  Not surprisingly, he kicked butt. I'm told more people came to his Defense than anyone could remember seeing at a Master's Defense.
     Two weeks later I found out on a Tuesday that he would be graduating on the following Saturday, so I was again able to get a last-minute ticket and get there for that event.  When I arrived, it was very -- very -- late at night, and Saffar was in incredible respiratory distress.  I was terrified for him, at the gurgling in his lungs which was so loud it woke me up at one point.  Ranger-like, he refused to go to the Emergency Room, but rather insisted that he was going to walk through his Commencement.
     It was quite the comedy of errors, the two of us:  Saffar in a wheelchair, and me in my priest outfit, wearing Saffar's combat boots!  (I'd neglected to pack shoes that would survive the ice and snow, and it turns out Saffar and I have almost the same size feet.  Go figure.)  We took him directly from his Commencement to the hospital, and he was there through the holidays until he was released to hospice, and then to home. 
     After the hospice doc told him two weeks ago there was nothing more that could be done, Saffar asked, "Does this mean I'm a goner?"  She answered, "Yes." 
     I grabbed another red-eye at the last minute, and showed up to a house full of laughter, what with Mason and his Dad, along with Boogro and Looney, not to mention Lindsey and others who dropped in.  It was a great celebration.  I finally had the opportunity to say Mass for them, and when I went to give Saffar communion by placing a drop of the consecrated wine on his tongue, only then did I realize that his tongue was a mass of scabs -- I knew he hadn't been able to eat or drink anything by mouth for a month, but I had no idea what it had done to his tongue.  I'd never heard him complain of that, at all.  He truly embodied the Ranger spirit.  Kristen has become every bit the Ranger, according to Saffar himself in an email to me not long before he died, too, given what she's been through. 
     When I was alone with him on that Sunday, just before I left, he told me he was ready to go.  He said he knew God's love for him was real, and that he was not afraid.  I told him that letting go was perhaps the most courageous thing he could do, and that if it was time for him to go, it was OK by me, and that I'd do my best to look after Kristen for him. 
     I kissed him on the head and told him I loved him, and that he'd been the best son I could ever imagine having. 
     He said, "You de man, Fatha."  I said, "No, *you're* de man, Saffar."  He said, "No, you're de man." 
     I was very much hoping to be able to tell him that again, but that's not the way it worked out.
     I'm grateful to God for bringing Saffar into my life, and through Saffar, Kristen.  He and I spoke four or five times a week (or more) for the better part of the past three years.  I shall miss him more than I can articulate.  I'm very grateful he's no longer in pain.  I'm grateful he's now with "the Lord he loved" as Sam put it in his note to you.  Let's all pray for Kristen. 
     Saffar has taught me a lot about life, and about dying, and about loving.  For years he'd always end his email notes to me with and abbreviation, and for years I didn't understand, and was too proud to ask him. Boy can I be dense sometimes!  I *finally* just got it just a couple of days ago. 
     Saffar has really done it this time, for me, and I suspect for all of us:  RLTW. 

Tim Meier, sj  

God bless you all.

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ
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