Ars Moriendi 2009
Th’ nearest anny man comes to a con−ciption iv his own death is lyin’ back in a comfortable coffin with his ears cocked f’r th’ flatthrin’ remarks iv th’ mourners.—Finley Peter Dunne
Right now, at this very moment, a friend of mine is dying in a hospice far away in Ireland.
In my biological family, people have always had a tendency to die suddenly. There is usually little or no lingering. My friend, on the other hand, is dying of emphysema, slowly and terribly where one false move leaves him choking for air for what he and the people around him keep thinking is the very last time.
This is the first lingering death that I have been exposed to in many years. (He finally slipped into a coma last night, so he is no longer awake and alert.) Aside from the fact that I have grown to love him over the years (he is my late brother’s father-in-law) there is something else that causes me to especially think about him as he dies.
He is an old fashioned, old school Irish believer, very devout and very sure in his faith. He used to be a plumber, but a great plumber who instilled what I call a Christian sense of craft in his apprentices. His apprentices in turn have been instilling this in their apprentices, a wonderful examply of how a touch of grace can radiate outwards. He and his wife also adopted a number of children over the last 40 years up until today and raised them along side their own biological children despite the fact that this family is of average means.
But there is something else that has demanded my attention as he lay dying. Twenty years ago he was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. It moved rapidly and painfully and in what seemed like no time, the doctors were standing at the foot of his bed telling him that they could do no more for him other than to keep him comfortable for the immanent end.
At this point, his best friend (a man whom I have always found rather irreverant) bundled him out of bed and dragged him off to the shrine at Knock, site of a possible appearance of the Blessed Virgin in the 19th century.
As it happened, a miracle occured and my friend was cured. The cancer permanently disappeared, which is why he is now dying of something completely different. Now my friend as far as I can tell was never the kind of man who needed miracles in order to trust and believe in God. We of course can be sure of nothing, but the people that know him agree that if there is anyone who has little to worry about in the next life it is he.
Still, the prospect of dying soon has been as terrifying to him as I’m sure it would be for me. I pray for him, earnestly, and I know that I should be happy for him as he stands on the threshold of eternal life. But in a way, I’m not even sure what I am praying for. Would I like him to have a little more time? Would I like him to be healed again with another miracle? (He is a very old man now.) Or do I think that at this point death is the greater blessing?
We are sometimes asked to remember as Catholics that this life is a vale of tears, especially when compared to the delights of heaven. But we are human too; life is sweet. If even Christ shed tears in the Garden of Gethsemane, how much harder is it for us to let go— let go of life and let go of each other.
Faced with this paradox, I see no easy resolution. My friend Noel is so close to death that he may be gone by the time you read these words. But I find as I compose my prayers for him, what I now ask for is simply strength; strength for him, strength for me, strength for us all.