"A Life of Kindness and Care"

SU legend Ed O'Brien is remembered by the president as compassionate, patient, generous

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Story by: Stephen Sundborg, S.J.
Published: 2014-03-06

On Monday, March 3, hundreds of friends and admirers packed St. James Cathedral to bid farewell to SU legend Ed O'Brien, who passed away last month at the age of 83. (You can find additional coverage on O'Brien in The New York Times and The Seattle Times.) What follows are the words that SU President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., shared at O'Brien's funeral.

Whenever Johnny and Eddie O'Brien spoke at a banquet, or rally, or fundraiser, it was always the practice that Eddie spoke first and Johnny second. This was not because of some precedence of Eddie over Johnny, or because Eddie would be the lead-off hitter, or that Eddie would pass the ball for Johnny to shoot; it was simply because Eddie knew that if he did not speak first he might not get to speak at all! This Memorial Mass for Eddie O'Brien will observe the same practice;  I'll speak first as a priest on behalf of Eddie, and Johnny will speak next as the eulogist of his twin at the end of the Mass.

In thinking of what to say about Eddie, I'm reminded of that famous line of the runner in the movie "Chariots of Fire": "God made me fast and so I give glory to God by running fast."  It's like the verse from our reading today: "I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith."

God made Eddie O'Brien fast, and coordinated, and with a quick eye. You and I could practice and train and strain as much as we wanted but we could never be as good as Eddie. God made him that way and he gave glory to God by being a legendary basketball player for the Seattle U. Chieftains, a great player for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and an inspiring Athletic Director and coach. God gave him an extraordinary gift from birth and Eddie gave great joy to us, to our city and region, and to the nation; but above all, he gave glory to God by using the gift God gave him.

God also gave Eddie another gift beyond his own choosing and making. God made him a twin.  He loved and used this gift more than anything imaginable. He went through grade school and high school with Johnny, came to Seattle U. with Johnny, was not only half of the razzle-dazzle duo with Johnny in both basketball and baseball, but roomed together with Johnny, took every single class together, and went to play for the Pittsburgh Pirates together. I'm told they nearly never spent a night apart till they married, and then for all of their lives they talked to one another every day either in person or by phone. You could be a twin and put up with it; you could be a twin and resent it; you could be a twin and assert your distance. Eddie embraced being a twin, loved it, accepted it as a gift from God, treasured it as his God-given identity. It was his very life to be this kind of a twin; a mystery of life bestowed by God which he enjoyed, but again by which Eddie gave glory to God for a unique depth and mystery and unity of life God gave him.

There are, however, many things which God does not give us but which we ourselves fashion or create by our choices and with God's grace. Eddie chose to be the most patient person any of us have known. He chose daily to be a good listener, a person of easy access, a good father, a great grandfather whom his grandchildren loved to follow around and to whom he listened. (You might guess that anyone who is a twin of Johnny O'Brien is likely to have to be a patient listener!) But Eddie made it a whole way of life, a sort of "Easy Access Ed" all of us found so easy to approach and so loved and respected in his patient, listening presence. A favorite quote of mine about death and how we are received by God beyond death goes like this, "Judgment is whispering into the ear of a merciful and compassionate God the story of my life as I have never been able to tell anyone." Eddie helped us and countless others to tell him the story of our lives as few could. Now Eddie the patient listener meets the all-compassionate One who mercifully and lovingly listens to the whole of Eddie's life story, loves hearing it, and blesses him for it.

Beyond being patient and listening, Eddie shaped his life into a life of kindness and care. How many people knew they could and did turn to him or call on him for help? They always found it.  He would help anyone and, no matter what they asked for or how inconvenient it was, they were always treated like he was glad to hear from them and to help. People said of him, "He is the kindest person I have ever known" and also "He is the most even-keeled person I have ever known" or "I've never known him to get mad." Some say, though they were identical twins, that Johnny got his dad's more feisty nature; while Eddie got his mom's more gentle temperament. In his generosity and his love of children he was a Santa for 34 years, but more truly he was a Santa every single day.

This patience, this listening, this kindness, this care, this glad generosity were the ways Eddie lived his lifelong faith, put his religion into practice, accepted the gifts of God, built on them by choice and by God's grace, chose to be a real Catholic and a real Christian in daily life.

The first word and the last word we need to hear today and to let really sink into our hearts about Eddie's life and death and about our own life and death is the word "mercy." As Fr. Mike Ryan likes to say, "Mercy is the first name, the middle name, and the last name of God." As our reading from the Book of Wisdom so boldly and consolingly says:

"O God, because you can do all things, you have mercy on all. For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made. You spare all things, because they are yours, O Lord and lover of souls."

Every one of us in this Cathedral needs a lifetime of faith to fully believe and accept that this is who our God is. We are here to help one another fully believe this about how God holds Eddie in his love and mercy. We are also here to believe the same about ourselves every day before God. 

I leave off my remarks as a priest speaking on behalf of Eddie O'Brien-before we hear later from Johnny speaking about his twin-with a final image taken from the gospel.

It is an image of two processions meeting. One procession is that of the widow and the crowd of people moving toward the cemetery to bury the widow's only son. It is the procession of death. Coming from the other direction is the procession of Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples.  This procession runs into the other one. It is the procession of life. Jesus is moved with pity for the widow.  So he steps forward and touches the coffin. The procession of life stops the procession of death. Jesus raises up and gives life to the son and restores him to his mother. So also Jesus, risen from the death and full of life, now stops the procession of death of Eddie O'Brien, touches him, and gives him life. Death does not end life; life stops death. Eddie is restored to us to remember, to look to as a witness how to use God's gifts, to love, and with him to give glory to God for life now and life in its fullness. Thank you, Eddie O'Brien: thank you, God.


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