April 21, 2019
I’ve never had the experience of witnessing the birth of a child. But, as a Catholic priest, I have been privileged to join families at the deathbed of a loved one on a number of occasions, most recently, on Thursday, April 5. Only this time, I was not standing there as the parish priest, but as the first-born child.
Midmorning, Joan, the hospice caregiver who had become such an important part of my mother’s life and preparation for death, came rushing out of the room where she was tending to Mom. She told me that there was “a change,” and that I better hurry.
I went into the room and immediately saw “the change.” I took Mom’s hand and began to “coach her into Eternity.” I hadn’t prepared anything for the moment. But, of course, I used the words I’ve spoken before to parishioners…spiritual words…prayerful words…words of hope. But this was much different. This was my Mom who was dying. It was very personal to me.
As she struggled to breathe, I heard myself saying: “That’s right, Mom…get it all out!”
Breathe out the worries, cares, concerns.
Good Mom…Now another….you’re doing great!
Breathe out your grief at the loss of Dad…and Grampa and Grama…and Uncle Jerry! Breathe out the pain and suffering and humiliation that has come with old age. Breathe out doubts and fears.
Breathe out time, Mom…and breathe in Eternity…breathe out time and breathe in Christ!
She responded. I know she did. I could hear and see her trying to push her earthly life out…and give up her spirit to her Creator…to empty herself completely, so that she could be born into Eternity.
That was a good one Mom…now another!
I didn’t count the times she followed my command in her efforts to exhale the last of her earthly life. I have no idea of how long I stood, bent over her, holding her hand and coaching her. I do recall, however, in fact, vividly, that the last breath was deep, powerful, almost determined, the last breath of a Christian wife and mother, confident of The Lord’s promise of everlasting life for those who believe.
After that, there was no cry of a newborn, or sounding of a trumpet, or fragrant smell. But there was an overwhelming sense of peace and joy. Deep down, I felt that this wasn’t an ending…but just the start of something wonderful that will never end.
I turned to Joan, who was standing respectfully at a distance, like I try to do when I’m a minister and not a son. We didn’t speak to one another, but the look on her face reassured me that the room was filled with Easter joy. And then, like Joseph of Arimathea, Joan began the work of respectfully caring for Mom’s earthly body, confident that her friend was now recreated.
I’ve never been at the birth of a baby, but I was the “midwife” that coached my mother into her new life in The Kingdom. That honor has left me with a deeper sense of what we celebrate today. Resurrection!
Theologians struggle to define it in words. The faithful try their best to understand what it means to be raised from the dead. Philosophers and scientists argue against it. But we are here to celebrate it. We are here because we believe that at the hour of our own death…The Risen Christ will be there to coach us into The Glory of God.
And while we wait…breathe! Breathe in the grace that comes from our Sacraments, confident that by His death and Resurrection, Christ has set us free.