On Death

I’ve never been with a person when they die. I’ve never been there for the final breath. It’s an occasion that I’ve thought about many times before. One of those ephemeral times when we rest from our ceaseless activities and collide with the reality of death. Our gaze forced to contemplate mortality.  A moment where time stills. The air a little denser than normal. Emotions emanate a bit easier. Tears, even if not from sadness, flow. It’s a time of purging, and hopefully a time of peace. It’s a moment where we cast off spectacle, standing exposed.

And at the same time, its utter reality is mystical. We experience the metaphysical, the true fullness of nature. Supernatural – above nature. Faith gives us assurance, but the chasm still percolates with mystery. I just finished Anthony Doerr’s novel, All the Light We Cannot See. In it a character notes that visible light, the light that we see, only makes up a very small portion of all the light that exists. More reality exists than what is just visible. The mystery of death puts us face to face with this fullness of reality.

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Last week my grandma’s brother Roger passed away. A few nights ago my grandpa’s brother Ken passed away. They were both good men, and I’ve always respected and enjoyed seeing them, even if it has only been in brief spurts growing up. Their passings have given me a few reflections over the past few days.

My mother and I were sitting in Ken’s hospital room the morning of his last day. We knew Ken was going to die soon. It was surprising he hadn’t passed the previous night. This 94 year-old man had lived a full life, with roughly 4 times the memories and experiences that I’ve had. [And I think I’ve been around for a while]. He’d fallen in love, raised a family, experienced war, grown old. He outlived 99% of his friends. Everything that he’d ever experienced climaxed to this one final day, and I was one who got to share it with him.

Ken couldn’t talk. He was fairly unresponsive. But, he knew we were there. We greeted him as we entered and sat near his bed. And then my mom reached out and grabbed his hand, holding it tenderly. She told him that we love him, that he’s been a blessing to our family, and that God loves him too. The power of a simple touch conveyed a depth of love words couldn’t express. It was tender and simple, compassionate and natural. A capacity I can grow in.

We started to pray the rosary with him. We’d say it aloud and he’d listen, holding my mother’s hand. And though he was mostly unresponsive, he could still squeeze her hand. After we finished the first decade he reached up and grabbed my hand, holding it as we continued to pray. I’m probably definitely one of the least touchy guys around, [I generally hate hugs at the sign of peace] but in that moment it was right, it was powerful, it was perfect. Holding Kenneth’s hand was an experience of Jesus’ love. Overwhelming love. On a man’s last day on this earth, I got to experience a part of it with him. Fortunately, that’s a gift in the priesthood that I’ll get to share with countless others.

In this Year of Mercy in the Church, I understand a little deeper why visiting the sick is such an important corporal work of mercy. One that I haven’t had too much experience with yet. I appreciate the role doctors, nurses, and others have to play in this ministry. I appreciate the power of love that I see my mother demonstrate so well, especially with her care for my grandma. I think about the loneliness that so many face, as they prepare to face death, and the importance of us sharing that journey with them. I’m also grateful for God’s mercy and love in my own life, and for Jesus not letting death have the final word.

Finally, I appreciate God’s gift of sadness. Tears of a joy from a life well lived. When things are worth crying about, things are worth living for.

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