O Life! O Death! O Mystery!
My friend volunteered in a program called NODA — No One Dies Alone.
It was not meant to walk the long journey through terminal illness with someone. It was, in fact, quite literal. At the hour of death, none of us should be alone.
The hospital might have a suffering patient who was living on the streets and they could not identify next of kin. Or perhaps someone was on their deathbed and their relatives were far away. Or the loved ones they had were very few and couldn't be at the bedside 24/7.
My friend would be called near the end, and would be there for that person as they left this world. He would hold their hand, pray with them or for them. If he knew they were Catholic, he might softly say a rosary as they, often unconscious, grew closer to death.
For him, it was a moving and important ministry.
But what happened, I asked, ever curious about that great mystery that lies before us. What happened at death?
"I don't know," he answered honestly. "All I know is that they fell into the hands of a merciful God."
Right now, we are in the great season of Easter, these 50 days of celebrating Jesus's victory over death. We rejoice, "always" as St. Paul advises, while we await the feast of Pentecost.
But we have just watched Jesus die and even as we rejoice in resurrection, bits of our hearts still dwell in that tomb.
Thoughts about death bring me to my mother. She was suffering from dementia, not eating anymore and growing weak. We knew the end was coming, but she lingered in the nursing home. I was in a graduate program, and I had a weekend of intensive classes. I planned to leave my home in Alaska for the long journey to the Midwest as soon as the weekend ended.
But my brothers sounded the alarm. The time was near. I got on a plane on Saturday morning but I arrived a scant few hours after her death. Seemingly not aware, she had nonetheless clung to life. My brothers wondered if she'd been waiting for me.
I regret not leaving sooner, but am consoled by the image not of Mom waiting for me, but of God waiting patiently for her.
Years before, I was a college freshman living with my aunt, when Dad died. We knew he was quite ill, but we had hope. Arriving back from class on the bus one day — in this era before cellphones — my cousin Fran met me and we rushed through the city streets to the hospital. Again, I was too late by mere minutes.
People have told me beautiful stories of death. One friend, the baby of a large family, recalls walking into the room where his mother had just passed, and at the threshold being held in an intense, unforgettable sense of peace and presence.
Likewise, the Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, writing of his mother's death in "Forgive Everyone Everything" (Loyola Press), relates how she suddenly looked up and "let out a glorious, wondrous gasp," and died. "And no one in earshot of the sound," he writes, "would ever fear death again."
Death is a mystery, an unknown. Jesus taught us, despite his fear in the garden, how to die well — with integrity and commitment. But he first taught us how to live, and that is our focus during this Easter season.
We're all pilgrims, walking together on this brief sojourn. Is there anyone, a friend, a relative, who needs our forgiveness, our love, our hand? Now, while the day has not yet ended?
by Effie Caldarola, a wife, mom and grandmother who received her master's in pastoral ministry from Seattle University.