catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 18 :: 2006.10.06 — 2006.10.20


A good death

She lies sleeping in the dimmed sterile room, mouth open, sedated. The family has called for me this evening, so I have picked up my briefcase with Bible and Songs for Service, circa 1910. I go to the Hospice suite at the hospital ready to see the woman without a memory with whom I sang months ago. She was up and around then, but now she has a lethal infection.

Children and grandchildren are in the room. I take her hand and say, “Hi, Beulah!”* [not her name] Her eyes fly open. She beams, her lips mouthing a happy greeting. Everyone is amazed. She has been unresponsive for three days. I pull out Songs for Service for the daughters to find some favorite songs. One daughter sings with me about that old rugged cross where the dearest and best for a world of lost sinners was slain. We gather around the bed for a prayer, and the family joins firmly on the Lord's Prayer.

The family is elated. This was wonderful. They wish the other siblings could experience it. Maybe it would work again tomorrow. I say this seemed like a sacred moment. It may not be repeatable. I will come by tomorrow morning.

The next morning the leading daughter says they would like me to do a brief bedside service that will serve as her funeral. They have bought an Amish-made casket and will have a simple family graveside service. I say I am available for whatever they need. I will come by late tomorrow afternoon.

The daughter calls me the next day to say all six siblings have arrived, from Texas and Missouri and nearby, and they are ready for the service any time. You mean for the funeral? I ask. Yes. Pause. Is she still with us? Oh, yes. You would like the funeral before she dies? Yes, that's what they would like. To have it all taken care of, to keep it simple. All right. I will be there. The daughter tells me mother likes the song “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.”

I work up a simple service. I find “When the Roll” on the Internet, complete with player piano acoustics, which helps me recall the melody. I just received a small beaded bag as a gift. I put a vial of oil in it and put it around my neck. I am as ready as I will be.

The family, spilling out of the room into the hallway, is glad to see me. I review what I am planning to do. Would anyone be willing to read Psalm 23? The granddaughter will! The songs and anointing sound fine. We gather around the bed. She lies deeply sedated with morphine. I say that I understand that everyone is ready to release her into her next life, is that right? Yes, yes it is. I take her hand and say in her ear, “Hi Beulah, we're going to pray for you now and do some singing. All your children are here.”

We pray and listen to Psalm 23. We sing, “Then when all of life is over, and our work on earth is done, And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.”  I invite us into a time of silence in which anyone is invited to share a memory. After a few minutes, stories start to come. How she raised the six children on her own, how she whupped a few, how she hit her husband's girlfriend, how she flashed her husband one Halloween. Memories of her cooking for the community; how her homemade noodles always sold out at the fundraisers. How she would feed a full lunch to the people who came to work on her house. She had the gift of hospitality, I say. Yes, that's right. The gift of hospitality, they say.

Every once in awhile I tell her close to her ear what is being said. 'Your daughter in law thanks you for giving her a good man.' 'They remember your noodles.' Grown sons say with sobs that they love her, reaching out for her hand. A son weak with cancer tries to rise out of his chair. They tell him to sit down. After a few new folks arrive we quiet down. With my right thumb I rub oil on her forehead, blessing her to go to her new home. We release her to die. Amidst thanks and appreciation, I take my leave.

When I get home half an hour later, there is a message from the hospice nurse that she died and that the family is “as happy as they can be in the circumstances.” I am stopped. I stand staring at my phone. I expected her to live for a few more days. I call a Hospice volunteer to talk about this. Later, I have a message from the daughter telling me that “You could have not been more than the parking lot” when her mother had opened her eyes and then died. “We are all fluttering around here, so happy,” she says. “You have done so much for us.” The family thinks she was somehow aware of the service.

Beulah had one of those rare good deaths, where the pain of parting takes second place to a pervasive sense that another reality is present. Something sacred and wonderful happened. Time was forgotten. Her family was euphoric in the midst of their loss. Tomorrow might be different, but today they had gladness.

Here's what still makes my knees weak: that those moments of affirmation may have had the power to help separate her spirit from her body. In her drugged rest, what did she receive? Why did her body stop a short bit after that gathering?

I use the word 'mystery' a lot because it is a short way to say, here is a Power that I do not understand and cannot control, but that I must trust. I do know that it is my task to create a safe place where the people in my momentary care can also trust that Power. And I know that when we are able to let go of what we want and accept what that Power is doing, amazing things happen. I know I want a death with love and song surrounding me. Beyond that remains mystery.

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