-- Matthew 5:4
I have laughed in the face of death. Not my own. But perhaps when my time comes, if I learn by example . . .
It seemed like the thing to do. They had gathered round their father who was dying. And they laughed.
All his children were there: three daughters and a son. When the son said he was an atheist, I said that’s all right, I’m a Unitarian and most people think I’m an atheist too. It went over real big. They guffawed. They thought I was a real wit.
He was only distantly Catholic, and the children were mixed – another distant Catholic, an Episcopalian, a spiritual eclectic – and the atheist son. But they thought their dad should have the last rites of a Catholic.
I explained the options. Because my priestly colleague wasn’t working that day, I could refer to the priest of the hospital for sacraments, but I don’t control his schedule and couldn’t predict when he would come. Or I could do my own ritual of Anointing, from the prayer-book of the Protestant church I was raised in – a measure that even some Catholic families find to be of comfort. One of them thought she recalled that, while dad was in the hospital but had not yet come to the hospice ward, the priest of the hospital came by to give him sacraments. Others of them thought she was confused about this.
They were sharp and educated people, together for a common reason – they loved their father. They argued with vigor but without anger, and reached a conclusion: I would refer to the priest of the hospital, and then as we waited for him to come I would provide my rituals as well.
When I came back, that’s when the real fun began. They told stories. This sharing of memory is what we call in the trade “Life Review,” but I didn’t have to lead it. Their dad had been a funny man. They told jokes that he had told, and then they told jokes about him. Every now and then they would touch his arm. “Did you hear that, Dad?” They showed me pictures of him, at different places and times with differing combinations of them, and in the pictures people weren’t just doing a say cheese smile – they were laughing. So I said You guys laugh a lot, I want to join your family. And they said Come on in, there’s room. And we laughed some more.
And just at this moment in the doorway appeared Father Francis of the hospital. He is young and handsome and, like his namesake, can charm birds out of trees. He was in the mood to do so. We were all glad to see him. And we all said so at once. And we all laughed some more.
And Fr. Francis could see that this particular angel of death had turned out to be a comedian. So he made his way by stages to the bedside, sensing the mood of each grieving child, respecting the reserve of the atheist son, listening intently to their stories and wisecracks, laughing with them and making a few jokes of his own. And very lightly, without making a big deal of it, without quashing the celebration of a good life well lived, asking the assistance of the children when he could, he performed the Sacrament of Anointing for a dying father.
If you don’t do this work you don’t know how many emotions there are at a deathbed, and that only some of them are sad. There are cries and noise, but only some of it is weeping. A deathbed can be a merry place. A deathbed can be a school of gratitude for life.
A miracle does not contradict nature; it is, in the oldest sense, a thing to be marveled at. Faith is a way of facing the future, knowing that though my way of being in the world keeps changing, something marvelous can still happen. I left that room exalted. If my deathbed can be like this one, I shall not be afraid.
Congratulations to those who mourn, indeed. They have comforted me.