Having spent all morning laboring over A Case of the Mondays, I gathered myself to head into the office about noon yesterday. Waiting for me in my inbox when I got to work was a request to trek out to a hospice facility to perform Last Rites for a dying parishioner.
The significance of saying the same prayers I’d said over my Grandpa’s precious body exactly a month ago (to the hour!) was not lost on me. While approaching parishioners I’ve never met usually intimidates me and I grit my teeth, this felt, in a way, like visiting an old friend. As I pulled into the lot in sunshine and 65 degrees (no coat or boots this time), I was vividly reminded of how it was to crunch through the snow to the quickly-familiar lower-level door of the similar house where my grandpa had died.
The facility’s scent, the calm lighting, the whispery noise–it felt like a time-warp. It was a different place, several states and weeks away, but it was also exactly the same. My parishioner lay in bed, in a coma, with the same slack jaw and irregular breathing that I’d seen in Grandpa at the last. It was the same smooth head, the peaceful–almost happy–expression; I recognized death in the room, not a menace at that moment, more of a sad–comforting?–certainty.
I sat in a folding chair wedged between the hospital bed and the wall–just where I’d sat in Chuck’s room, back against a sliding glass door–I couldn’t help but say the same things I’d whispered to him in the last days, “You’re doing so well; it’s hard work; you’re almost there.” After awhile and a few psalms, I turned to the pages I’d marked back in January, “Ministration at the Time of Death.”
With that mystical peace that accompanies good deaths–and this was surely another one–I prayed the same words said over dead and dying bodies the world over throughout time. I joined thousands of voices praying around millions of bodies; time collapsed on itself while the same words are spoken. Of course, there was one particular time and place that echoed louder than others for me.
Afterward, I sat back in the folding chair for awhile (just like last month, those chairs register no discomfort in such holy presence), and let my parishioner minister to me. Though I’d never met this person while conscious, walking with another person making the same trek as my loved one had so recently was an unspeakable joy and salve. I was surprised at how much was the same. I suspect much will be different in many more deaths by which I keep watch, but I hope, too, that I’m more often surprised and reminded at how much death–and as a corollary, life–is the same. Moments with strangers can drive a person to tears as we recognize the echoes of those with whom we’ve trod long, long roads.
If we believe in the family of God, in our sibling-hood by virtue of being born again in Baptism, of course moments with strangers should remind us of our biological or intimate relationships forged and tended for years. There’s really no difference to God, and we pray to learn and practice that there’s really no difference to us.
What I mean to say is this: the conceptions of time and of family which our culture feeds us from the moment we take breath isn’t necessarily the true one. These such “coincidences” can break through our secular structures and nudge us toward sacred structures for understanding time and family (and work and life), these are the kinds of structures, or conceptions, that our minds and bodies and spirits were made for–the kind which will make us thrive. Thanks be to God.