Thoughts and Faith to Share

Death, where is thy victory? Her simple faith nourished me
Bishop Robert Vasa

The elderly woman whom I was privileged to attend to during the past few days gave me ample opportunity to reflect upon life, dying and death. Up until about a week ago she would still get up and around by herself, offer to make breakfast for the family and carry on at least brief conversations. Her frail 84-year-old frame belied the robustness of her youth. She would, without any hint of boast, state that she had spent, in the course of her lifetime, seven nights in hospitals � one night for each of her seven children. It seemed that she neither liked nor disliked doctors; she just did not have a lot of need for them.

Over the past six months she was very much aware that she was declining but the prospect did not seem to unduly trouble her. When her daughter asked her if she was afraid to die, her matter of fact answer was simply, "No, lots of folks have done it before." Over the course of the last few days when she had slipped into a more comatose state her overall demeanor was one of tranquility and peace. During this tranquil, slow breathing approach to the threshold of death the family had the opportunity to gather at her bedside and keep her company, talk to her a little, pray for her a lot and simply watch her sleep, breathe and move ever so slowly toward death. Sometimes the interval between breaths was long enough to cause one to draw a little closer just to see if a next breath was in fact coming. Eventually it wasn't.

Living in Oregon, the Assisted Suicide State, gave me reason to question more than once what the godless would do in parallel circumstances. It would be very easy to increase the nominal dose of morphine to the point that it no longer facilitated breathing but rather impeded it. It would have been very easy to provide a more than necessary dose of anti-anxiety medication under the guise of helping her sleep. Instead great care was taken to assure that the family and medical actions neither hastened death nor unduly prolonged life. The prayerful respect and reserve of those to whom she gave birth was very obvious.

They did not hover around her, they are not necessarily the 'hovering' type but they did keep vigil with her, hold and stroke her hands and feet and assure her of their presence and their love. There were a number of beautiful moving and prayerful moments in the course of those last days and it was a privilege for each family member to have some part in them. It seemed that the elderly woman was not necessarily in a hurry to go somewhere else but it was also clear that she was not fearfully clinging to where she was. All signs indicated that she was at peace � with God, with her family, with herself and with the world.

It is unfortunate that the picture which is often painted of death is that picture designed to impart fear, anxiety and dread. It is a picture which the purveyors of death, the death with dignity crowd, insist is inevitable. I will admit that a less than tranquil death is a very real possibility for all of us but the fear of a less than tranquil death may drive some, particularly in Oregon, to miss the opportunity for a peaceful and grace-filled death. This elderly woman, with the kind and gracious assistance of her family, met death on its own terms and was not in the least cowed by it. Death where is thy victory? Death where is thy sting?

Perhaps at the root of her serene answer about fear of death was the acknowledgement that not only have lots of folks gone through it before her but, most notably and centrally, Christ has gone through it before her. Her approach to death speaks loudly of a simple and yet determined faith, an unyielding faith, an unquestioning faith. There is absolutely no question about the reality of an eternity which follows immediately upon the completion of this temporality. There is no hint of questioning the existence or the goodness of God and questioning the fact or the nature of the salvific action of Jesus would itself be incomprehensible.

As the family gathered to keep vigil it was first thought that an All Saints' Day death was in the making. When that day passed the family realized that All Saints' Day was, after all, too auspicious a day for this kind and simple woman of faith to claim as her eternal birthday. Thus we passed onto All Souls' Day and with 24 hours left in that day we were quite certain that this was the day, and a most fitting one and an easy one for the family to remember, on which her particular harvest would occur. This woman was not one whom anyone would describe as obstinate and yet in this there appears to have been a hint of obstinacy for she did not allow herself to be influenced by the perceptions of those who sat with her. She who was thought incapable of lasting more than a few minutes into Nov. 2 did not breath her last until the morning of the 3rd. I was present for only portions of the five day vigil during which Leona very gradually and gently relinquished her mortal body but throughout she was peace-filled. Not only was she peace-filled, but those who came and sat with her were likewise drawn very gently and reverently into the process of her death.

This was a woman who was never more at home than when she was in the kitchen preparing a little something, and usually something quite substantial, for others. She was very much a woman who never wanted attention called to herself and I can assure you that the thought of having her name appear in this column would have caused, and probably is causing, her great distress. Her witness of a peaceful approach to death, however, deserves to be told so that others may see that death really holds no ultimate power over us and that fear of dying and fear of living are perhaps the same thing.

I do consider myself most richly blessed for having had the opportunity to spend these past days with this marvelously wonderful and simple woman of faith. I consider myself most richly blessed for having had the opportunity over the years to enjoy the fruit of her culinary talents. Her simple art sated hunger. Her simple faith nourished my own.

Thank you, Mom.

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