Time bound

I was not looking forward to Labor Day weekend. Since my dad was born in early September, we always celebrated his birthday then. This was our first year without him and I wasn’t sure how the weekend would go. 

The Sunday prior to holiday weekend, my mom commented that the 29th marked the fifth month since his passing. Since they were married for over 65 years, I can understand that her loss is measured more acutely than mine. It’s a sobering thought that within the space of a week, we remembered my Dad on the two limits of life: birth and death. But those limits are what humans place on life because that’s the measure we understand.

I planned a visit to the columbarium, as I was concerned that the weekend would feel empty and odd. While I knew I would be missing him, at least visiting his resting place could provide a sense of peace that I did something. Yet while I was there, I kept wondering what did the birthdate mean any longer? The birthdate is only when he was born into the physical world. His death date, however, is when he passed into eternal life. At that moment, my human mind could not wrap itself around this concept and I kept trying to push away the thought. 

Part of human nature is to measure and categorize. Since we cannot usually tell when the moment of conception occurs, the next big milestone is birth. We measure our whole life against that single day. It’s a memorial for the living to mark the passage of time. However, once a person is no longer with us, the birthday no longer has significance since the person is no longer bound by time and space. Birthdays become rather bittersweet: recalling memories of previous birthdays and marking how old the person would have been.

In contrast, the Church often celebrates saints on the day of their passing. Perhaps this is why the thought kept niggling at my brain. Maybe the better day to celebrate is the day of a person’s passing. While we won’t know if that person is in purgatory or heaven, we hope in the mercy of God and anticipate his or her reception into the beatific vision. Loosed from the bonds of time and space, our loved ones are in a unique position to be both close to us and close to God, petitioning Him on our behalf. 

Whether we celebrate a birthday or the death day, or even both, our time-bound humanity can only measure the gain or loss of a person. But no matter if the person is a named saint or a family member, it is our memories of them that cast deep impressions on us and help us to strive to become better versions of ourselves. Perhaps one day they will be the ones to greet us on our death day as we pass from this world into eternal life. 

Well done good servant

It’s been a tough week. For two years we knew this was coming, yet it still seems surreal. It’s not really discussed because it’s such an unpleasant topic, but death comes to all of us.

My 88-year-old Dad started to decline rapidly last week. While he could no longer stand up or walk and had trouble feeding himself, he still was a participating member of the family. Then he had trouble sitting up, his kidneys had started to fail and he started getting confused and agitated. I was blessed to visit him and tell that I loved him before he was bedridden, slipping in and out of consciousness. And then we waited for the end… and waited… and waited. It took almost four days before he finally breathed his last. I prayed to St. Joseph, the patron for a happy death. I prayed to Pope Saint John Paul II, who also suffered from Parkinsons’ just like my Dad. I also prayed to Fr. Hamilton, a fabulous priest that I miss. I prayed for them to help my Dad make the transition. Every morning and every evening and at times throughout the day, why was he lingering so long? It was like he was the Energizer Bunny, just going and going.

At one point during the vigil at his deathbed, I took a few steps back and just pondered the situation. As one in the physical realm, I see that he is physically lingering, his breathing gurgling yet in some way still strong. But we are not just in the physical world. We have a soul, what’s going on with his soul? Only God knows that, and God knows what He’s doing. Perhaps what appears to us as lingering is really the opportunity for the soul to prepare itself. Who am I to wish that Dad’s life be cut short because I feel uncomfortable watching and listening to him breathe? What mattered most was that he was well cared for, not in pain, and never alone.

Taking in Dad laying in the bed and space around it, I began to pray. How many times I have prayed the Hail Mary, yet now when I got to the end of the prayer, it was hard to say, “…now, and at the hour of our death.” Yet in that moment, I had a sense that he was surrounded by angels and saints and they were joyful and excited. Here I am with tears down my cheeks while they were happy. And why wouldn’t they be? They were getting ready to welcome him to his final home. 

Death may be an unpleasant topic because we are so fully immersed in a physical world. Would it be easier if we knew just what awaited us on the other side? Maybe. Perhaps in a physical realm, we would not be able to grasp just what the spiritual realm has to offer. Or just knowing would not be satisfactory to us and life in the physical realm would lose its meaning. 

I know Dad’s soul is in the hands of Jesus. I hope He has said to him, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Come, share your master’s joy.” (Matthew 25:21).

Who needs death?

It’s that time of year again; I now have three choices if I want to watch TV: 1- develop lightning fast reflexes to mute and close my eyes, 2- watch only PBS to avoid commercials, 3- just don’t watch it. Even my favorite channel, the Food Network, gets into the blood and gore of the Halloween season, advertising the special programs that make edible treats which ooze and frighten. It seems that the majority of the nation enjoys the horror that leads to death, however when death arrives, what is their reaction?

I happened upon an article, Mortal remains, by an undertaker, Thomas Lynch. The premise is that in America the only person not welcomed at a funeral is the person who has died. He set the stage for his insights by calling to mind the funeral of Pope John Paul II in the very first line of the article. I was wondering where this would go! Apparently the status quo is not to show the body in a coffin, display grief in public, or stand at the graveside to say goodbye. Rather it is to have “celebration of life” parties, where all are welcome to enjoy the company of those who have come. The question becomes, who is the funeral for: the living or the dead?

While the author does his best to remain neutral about religion, he does make a good case for the living to have some sort of send off for those who have perished. Religions have rituals that make it easier to ease the transition for those who remain. It may not be perfect for everyone, but something is better than nothing, as then each person has to find their own way which can be a painful process. I found it a rather interesting read as we start the month of October, when local fright fests pop up all over. People seem to be comfortable with death when they can control it. They enjoy the horror fantasy. When it becomes real life, they turn to undertakers to perform the necessary arrangements, so that the only thing they need to focus on is the party afterwards.

The last funeral I attended was for a popular priest in my area who often said Mass at the church I attended. There was an open casket before the funeral Mass, and it was very helpful to pray before him and then participate in the Mass. It was yet another moment in the Catholic faith where there is a mix of heaven and earth in one location: Jesus present in the sacrifice, welcoming the body of Father Hamilton, while the living send him on his way. The hope that we have in heaven and the resurrection is truly a magnificent gift God gives us. We can appreciate and thank God for this gift by living and doing His will.

Death will come to all those we love as well as to ourselves. Rather than trying to control it, let us participate in the final send off and appreciate the faith that gives us hope in the life to come.