On Final Journeys

I have been privileged to accompany several people as they prepared to face death. All taught me important lessons about courage, about faith, about what really matters. In many ways, the finest teacher was my own mother.

My father had a stroke in 1994. This in itself was devastating. My father lost much of his power. Where there had been confidence, there now was fear. Where there had been autonomy, there now was dependence. The majority of his care fell to my mother, who took it on with her usual stoic acceptance.

Around Thanksgiving of that year, my mother began to complain of stomach pains. This in itself was remarkable. As I told her, “What is a little pain to you would probably bring the rest of us to our knees!” Privately, I thought that, after 52 years, my father had finally given her an ulcer. So on december the 5th, when I asked her if she had an ulcer, she said “Yes. And a tumor.” To paraphrase Scout Finch, thus began our final journey together.

My research as well as my experience with other cancer patients told me that the prognosis for stomach cancer was not good and that chemotherapy would wreak havoc on my mother’s 81-year-old body. With my support, she elected to do nothing. And so, I made a decision to travel back to Scranton to accompany her for a while. When I showed up at the hospital, she got right to the point, saying “Well, my bags are packed.”

We had some remarkable conversations over the next 3 days. We talked about baseball and her personal favorite player, Red Schoendienst. We talked about my Dad and my brother. We talked about the past. We asked each other for forgiveness, thankfully noting that anything that needed to heal had already done so.

A cousin came with her newborn infant and my mother spoke a blessing. I became aware that my normally quiet mother was becoming more open in her expressions of love. In the evenings, I would sit with her and play some music. Irish tunes. Perry Como. At one point, I played the sound track from She Loves Me, a musical I’d performed in while in college. I though she was asleep but at the overture she turned and smiled.

And yet she held on. Finally it came to me. “She wants to make it through Christmas,” I thought. When I asked she said with a degree of stubbornness I knew would not bend “Of course I am! I don’t want to put a damper on everyone’s Christmas.” I knew then that she was in dialogue with her Lord to let her linger just a little while longer.

She indeed made it through Christmas, lingering long enough for a final visit with my father on December 28th. Fifteen minutes after he left, she died.

That night I went out into my backyard to find her star. I scanned the sky and saw several bright candidates but none seemed right. Then I saw them. Three stars in a line together, the one in the middle slightly brighter. I knew then that my mother was with my sisters and that she was smiling.

My mother’s lessons in faith were always quiet and humble. Her final act of faith, that her Lord would allow her some choice in when she let go, her focus on love as the only feeling that really mattered, her letting go of any anger, her absolute conviction that she was “going to see my girls” stay with me some 18 years later as beacons of hope to one who stumbles and doubts.

Reflection: 1. Have you spent time with anyone preparing to die? How have those experiences affected your spiritual journey?