When we attend church in the month of November we are reminded of those souls who have died and gone to their final resting place. We pray for them. We are also reminded of our own mortality since we know we too will die someday. Dying is a double-edged sword. We have to leave those we love; yet we pray that we will be joined in heaven with Jesus and all His saints surrounded by His perfect love.
I have been pondering about those I’ve lost this since All Souls Day. My parents, grandparents, three brothers, most recently, my brother-in-law and uncle and of course, a few friends. These are some of my thoughts that came to me in this month.
Let me start sharing a story of someone I knew briefly. Her name was Marian.
Marian was 96 years old. The year was 2008. She had just learned that she had terminal lung cancer. She lived in the apartment below mine. For over a year I had been visiting her regularly to see if there was anything I could do to help her. She appreciated it when I would stop by, if only just to say “hi.”
Dying is inevitable. Anyone that lives will die. But what is the first thing you would want to do if you learned you had a terminal illness and had limited time to live?
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow,” said Mahatma Gandhi. “Learn as if you were to live forever.”
Marian’s doctor advised her to get her “affairs in order.” She did not have much time.
When we have “our affairs in order” shouldn’t we be looking at more than just the financial responsibilities we leave behind? Marian had left a will so that responsibility, though important to her, was easy.
It was her family and friends and her relationship with God she wanted to be in order now. She asked someone to take her to church every day for the rest of her life. She was not a big believer before the previous year, but she decided she needed a different direction. She needed to get “right with God.”
The only other thing that mattered to her was spending time with her family and her few friends that were still alive. I was honored that she included me in that list. I asked her if she had any regrets. She responded that she made some mistakes in her life, some costly because along the way she hurt some people; I reminded her we’ve all done that. She was pleased she’d made efforts to correct those “costly” mistakes; yet she still felt regret she’d made them. She was sorry she took up smoking again. “That’s probably not the smartest thing I’ve ever done. But, dying isn’t easy, even in your nineties. It brings fear and uncertainty.”
After 96 years Marian knew she was dying. She lost her twin sister the year before. After her sister’s death she took up smoking. She asked, “Do you believe I’ll see her again?”
I responded, “Oh, yes. I believe you will.”
Seven months ago my sister Debbie lost Craig, her husband of 42 years. It was a shock. He went into the hospital for hernia surgery and died after complications from surgery. Debbie, although a woman of faith, is still wrestling with the pain of losing Craig. She feels robbed that they were not given more years to enjoy retirement together. They had plans. You know the ones; wanting to travel, wanting to watch their grandchildren grow up, wanting to see their grandsons make a success of their lives, wanting to see their first granddaughter through college and then married someday. You understand. I’m sure these plans sound familiar because this is what we all aspire for our retiriement years. They were only a few years away.
But God had other plans. Debbie wakes up every day missing Craig. She knows in her heart she will see him again. He may be gone physically, but loving him will never be gone. She knows Craig would want her to enjoy her remaining time with family and friends, but there’s sadness in her heart that’s hard to cope with some days.
I read an inspiring essay by Marcy Westerling who learned she had terminal cancer. She refers to her diagnosis as “livingly dying.” She said after the first months of terror subsided, she began to adapt to her “new normal.”
“My mandate,” she writes, “is to live with the shadow of death seated comfortably on one shoulder, I rarely forget, but I often dismiss my new companion.” She went on to say that few people manage to live in the moment but people in her situation have no choice.
These examples, Marian’s, Craig’s, and Marcy’s, bring me back to a conversation I remember overhearing once when my parents were discussing dying. They came to the conclusion it would be better to know in advance rather than to die suddenly. I suppose the true lesson comes when we know we gave that person the love they deserved. Debbie and Craig did not have time to prepare, but she was grateful she said “I love you” every day of their time together. She talked about this commitment of love as he lay dying. She thanked him for their life together. She was so happy they had the 42 years together they were given.
As the priest gave Craig the Anointing of the Sick, Debbie saw a look of peace on his face before he took his final breaths. She had a sense of relief to see that look after watching his suffering over the previous week; she knew he was with God. She also knew at that moment they would be together again.
The morning of April 15, 2008, I knocked on Marian’s door. She had apparently passed away in her sleep. Her grandson met me at her door. He told me she wanted me to have a quilt that I admired on her bed. I went to her funeral and her minister said he loved her honesty. He appreciated she had developed a true relationship with God in her final year of life.
I think all three were able “to get their affairs in order.” I say a prayer for them, knowing they are joyful with God now. I say a prayer that they will be there to greet us when we die. I believe they are all “right with God.”
“I believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and life everlasting, Amen.”
Copyright 2018 Catherine Mendenhall-Baugh