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Of Love and Dying

by Fr. John Oliver

About three weeks ago, I received a phone call from a woman who, with her husband, had recently visited our parish. Joyce is a caregiver to the elderly, and she was calling with a particular need. Urgent, too. A ninety-three year old woman, named Polly, was not expected to live long, and some pastoral support was needed.

When I arrived at Polly’s house, Joyce greeted me at the door. We walked a couple of dozen steps to a couch by a set of broad windows. There, in the warm bath of natural mid-day light, lay Ms. Polly. Because of her condition, she was not able to formally greet me – as, I understand, would have been her custom – but that also meant that she could not formally throw me out. So, I sat down.

We had a conversation – me, babbling about various things, her, responding with her eyes and the occasional nod of her head. Then, we read together from the Book of Psalms – the 23rd was one of her favorites: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…”

Ms. Polly and I had several such visits over ten days or so. Her caregivers seemed to know intuitively about Ms. Polly’s internal state, how she was feeling, what she liked and disliked, and what she wanted to communicate at any given moment. The measure of their care for Ms Polly was impressive, and, of course, with genuine care comes knowledge. Then, I met her family.

In his book called The Different Drum, M. Scott Peck wrote that “in our culture of rugged individualism – in which we generally feel that we dare not be honest about ourselves, even with the person in the pew next to us – we bandy about the word community. [But] if we are going to use the word meaningfully,” he writes, “we must restrict it to a group of individuals who have learned how to communicate honestly with each other, whose relationships go deeper than their masks of composure, and who have developed some significant commitment to ‘rejoice together, mourn together,’ and to ‘delight in each other, to make others’ conditions our own.’”

Peck speaks here of a “sacred initiative.” Love requires a special kind of violence if it is going to overcome the deep fragmentation and isolation that increasingly define our age. If the “sovereignty of the self” is a quality of modern culture – driving everything from the content of advertising to how we spend Sunday mornings – then connection and relationship are qualities of the Kingdom of God. In the Gospel according to St Matthew, Our Lord said that “the Kingdom of heaven is taken by force,” and He appears to speak here not of bullets and swords, but of the more powerful tools of humility, compassion, self-sacrifice, and love. These are the forces that create open wounds in the tough skin of our age, so that the Kingdom might bleed through…to us. Love is a painful, but necessary, process.

I met Ms. Polly’s family on the day of her death. The call came early and Joyce spoke clearly but quietly, as if in the presence of something everyone knew but did not want to talk about. The night before had apparently been difficult, and Ms. Polly had become unresponsive. Other calls went forth – mostly to family members.

As the morning unfolded into afternoon, family continued to arrive at the house – daughter, son, grandchildren, and in-laws. Each entered the bedroom where Ms. Polly was holding on. Her daughter wondered if Ms. Polly was doing everyone the last and most gracious of favors – waiting until everyone who needed to be present was present before letting go.

Minutes became hours. The only sounds in the room were the quiet hum of the oxygen machine, the occasional whisper, the occasional sniffle. All movement was restrained and respectful. The time of Vespers was approaching – 6pm – so I had to leave the home and head to the church. After Vespers, I checked my phone: one message, from Joyce. Ms. Polly died at ten minutes before six.

For each family member, it had been, of course, difficult to be present at The Moment (and difficult, too, for those present emotionally if not physically). There is a strong temptation within us to turn away from the hard moments of life…and death. And those moments are almost as numerous as the strategies we have developed to avoid them. But this family accepted the more difficult path of turning toward the struggle, and it showed in their body language – the tears, the fatigue, the resignation that comes over a person when in the presence of death’s inevitability, but also the closeness, the smiles, and the tenderness with each other. This had apparently been a close family all along, but these persons had leaned in to Ms. Polly especially in her last days and hours and minutes, and that meant that they had also leaned in to each other.

The funeral included family members sharing thoughts and memories, some of which elicited chuckles from those in the know. A close family will have its own private vocabulary – an expression like “scrambled eggs on Saturday morning,” while prosaic to others, may, in fact, have layers of meaning. And those layers form blankets that keep persons close and warm toward each other through the years.

Before stories can happen, though, and blankets can form, persons must inevitably make themselves vulnerable. We must take the giant risk of opening ourselves, of taking the initiative, of discovering something new about someone, of being the last to judge or the first to apologize. Connections and relationships are qualities of the Kingdom of God – the very God who condescended to know us and to make Himself known. Such love between persons is possible only because He first loved us.

If not love, then what? In the end, what is the alternative? The alternative is that, entirely unlike Ms. Polly, we die alone – slowly, imperceptibly. Some wonder if learning how to love – and learning how to be loved – is worth the risk of disappointment and hurt and embarrassment. The more insightful among us believe it is.

The Christian writer C.S. Lewis explored this very thing: “Love anything,” he writes, “and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”