Advent is supposed to be a hopeful time of expectation. Liturgical rituals immerse us in a season of light breaking through the darkness, and we meditate on the inconceivable mystery of God becoming human. I participated in a different, unexpected vigil these past few weeks. I sat in a hospice room waiting for my mother to die.
My mother was a good Catholic until the end. Educated by Mercy nuns in Baltimore, she spent her final hours at a Catholic hospice near my parents’ house—Stella Maris (Star of the Sea), an ancient title for the Virgin Mary. Through the fog of exhaustion and grief, we watched as nurses cared for her with quiet dignity. My mom slept and rarely opened her eyes, her pain carefully managed. Close friends came to say their goodbyes. Stories that made us cry and laugh filled the room, where a crucifix hung on the wall. One of the kids who grew up in the recreation center she directed, now a burly New York City cop, drove five hours to see her. Her old basketball coach, still witty and well-coiffed in her 80s, stopped by. At other times, I sat with my mom alone, holding a hand that could no longer squeeze back. Even though we couldn’t communicate, I sensed she knew I was there watching over her, an inversion of the way she watched over me as an infant.
Waiting for someone you love to die is a surreal experience, where the sacred and profane meet. Nothing I’ve experienced in the grandest cathedrals compared with accompanying the person who gave me life to the end of hers. And, yet, even in that space charged with grace, we inevitably got hungry, bored, punchy, argued, glanced at social media. We stood awkwardly between the transcendent and the tedium of daily life. That probably happens to us in life more than we notice, but death clarifies, shatters illusions, helps us see with the eyes of the heart.