Have you ever been present at someone’s death?
It’s a strange feeling, isn’t it? One moment the person is there and the next … he or she is gone. The person’s body is still warm to the touch. Maybe even the blood is still pulsing a little in the veins. But that person, the unique individual who laughed and loved and lived, that person is no longer there.
In the course of one week, our family experienced life and death. Our son was born and, six days later, my brother died. As I worked through my contractions in one hospital, waiting for new life to be born, my brother suffered through brain surgery in another hospital, waiting for the terminal diagnosis his stage IV brain cancer gave him. My mind is still contemplating this: life and death.
I think about our newborn son and his life in the womb. Since the day he was created, that was all he knew: life in utero. The sound of my heartbeat, the feel of the amniotic fluid surrounding him, and the rocking movements of my body: his only knowledge of the world. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, he went through what must be the frightening, uncomfortable, and unfamiliar experience of birth. His world completely changed. Suddenly, everything was new: a world of sunlight and his mother’s warm touch and faces that smile with love upon him.
My brother only knew this earthly world—and maybe, some would say, in an imperfect way since Michael was born with developmental disabilities. Last week he suddenly experienced death. Everything changed for him. He is in a new world: a perfect, eternal world. The face of God can now smile upon him.
Life and death.
As I sat beside Michael’s hospital bed in those final moments, I kept repeating to myself the words of St. Augustine: “We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!” This world is not our home. Death does not have the final say; it is life, death … and eternal life. I found myself, even in my sadness, smiling quietly as I looked at my brother. I saw his breathing tube, the bandage on his head from his brain surgery, the brace around his broken ribs and spine, and thought: this isn’t the end of Michael’s story. This suffering and pain is not the final chapter. Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday and the suffering my brother has bore so courageously, with so few—if any—complaints, is earning him an eternal crown of glory.
As the moment of death drew nearer, the nurse removed Michael’s tubes and braces. He already looked free: God was calling him home and we were letting him go. Our family circled his hospital bed and we prayed together, “Jesus, I trust in You.” We were praying him home.
We are an Alleluia people. What would we do without this precious faith? Death would be so final, so dismal. It would be a permanent goodbye. Yet, with the hope that Christ gives to us, we can talk about death with joy. Michael died at the age of thirty-seven, but his soul was that of a young child—innocent and pure. It was indeed with joy we could return that pure soul back to God. And, one day, through God’s grace, we will see him again.
In every Hail Mary we ask our Mother, “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” God’s presence in Michael’s hospital room was palpable. A priest gave Michael the Anointing of the Sick. Holy cards were spread on his lap while a rosary and brown scapular were placed in his hands. Surrounded by family members, Michael breathed his last breath and died. It was a holy death. To die in God’s grace, to persevere and run the race well to the end, should be the goal of each one of us.
When we heard Michael’s diagnosis just a couple of weeks ago and knew his brain tumor to be terminal, I wondered how I could go through each day with the weight of that knowledge on my mind. Yet, we all have a terminal diagnosis, you might say. It’s called original sin and it brought death to the world. Any of us, at any moment, could die. We must stay alert, as Our Lord urges us: we know not the day nor the hour He will call. This shouldn’t fill us with fear. Rather, the expectation of being with the Lord and the hope of heaven should spurn us on in living holy lives. St. Francis of Assisi in his “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon” proclaims,
Praised be You, my Lord through Sister Death,
from whom no-one living can escape. Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Blessed are they She finds doing Your Will.
No second death can do them harm. Praise and bless my Lord and give Him thanks,
And serve Him with great humility.
Yes, through our faith we don’t need to fear death; our true fear should be of mortal sin. If we persevere to the end, death will do us no harm, but will lead us to our true homeland in heaven. Our Lord assures us that He has prepared a place for each one of us. I trust that Michael, in his purity of heart, is there. In heaven, there is no more suffering or pain. In heaven we will see Christ face-to-face in an eternal embrace of perfect love.
Could there ever be a greater goal?