Last month, my sister alerted all five siblings that the end was very near for our 81-year-old mother. She’s been in a nursing home for a year, but was hospitalized with renal and congestive heart failure among other maladies. I was on a plane the next day, and for six days, was at her bedside. She pulled through and returned to the nursing home.
Many have been through the long goodbye awaiting death. I don’t question why God is dallying. His timing is perfect and it is not my mother’s time–yet. But it will come eventually as it will come surely for us all. We all have the knowledge but not always the realization that we are all dying, day by day. And living. It is how we are living that matters and facing death can help us to do it better.
I am not prone to tears but I have my moments. It will seem trite for me to share here that when I bring a family dog in to be put to sleep, I always cry. I don’t want to, and I give myself pep talks to just get on with it and don’t cry, but I always do. We usually have two dogs at a time and we’ve had many over the years, often getting them when they are adults, so I’ve been through this routine several times. Once the dogs are gone, I’m fine. Only those moments before they will cease to exist give me trouble. It is the spark of life I am crying for; my dearly beloved pet that will soon lose that spark within minutes. It is the spark that makes atheism illogical for it cannot be manufactured in a laboratory or evolved into existence.
In humans, the spark leaves the human body as an eternal flame. We know this in theory, but on a day-to-day basis most of us are in denial. Why else is it so easy to live badly at times? But at the beside of the dying, denial fades as we embrace a life preparing to leave. We see clearly that time is fleeting; that all the pretty dresses, beautiful collections, worries and mundane cares of the world, matter for nothing. With my mother’s physical beauty faded, it is only her inner beauty that remains. In her, we more readily measure our own lives. Our ties to shallow things loosen as we evaluate what is of value and what is not.
Just as my mother once taught us to pray and sought to lead us to God, she continues to lead us. She waits at the threshold of death with us at her side. You cannot get that close without peering in, knowing she will soon cross over from this world to the next.
In getting to know death, we sort out life. Our vision of the important things becomes 20/20 as we mesh our memories with Mom up against our own family lives. She guides us to live better until which time we will follow her.
Through this process, I have thought of Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins, a church in Rome, Italy. I first learned of it through a homily at Mass. The church has a crypt, that contains the skeletal remains of 4,000 Capuchin friars. A plaque in one of the chapels reads, in three languages, “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be.” The order insists that the display is simply a silent reminder of the swift passage of life on Earth and our own mortality.
I think I would find this Church somewhat disturbing, not because of all the skeletons but because of the undeniable truth that is presented so starkly. I strive to live for eternity, yet on a moment-to-moment basis, I am apt to forget eternity and think only of today while harboring a presumption of tomorrow.
I need to be reminded of the truth on a regular basis. Holding vigil with my mother serves as such a reminder. I’ve heard many people describe their loved ones slipping from this world unto the next as being a beautiful moment. It’s beautiful because God has made it so and it is only scary when we deny and run from it. So, my mother helps my siblings and me not to run, but to sit awhile and visit; to visit with her, to visit with God, and to visit with ourselves.