It is with a heavy heart that I write this note, but thought it was important for those close to me to know: today, Dec 23rd, 7 days before her 74th birthday, my sister Sheila left her earthly home.
It is also the last day of the seven “O Antiphons” before Christmas — “O Come Emmanuel”! A theologian once pointed out that the antiphons are ordered with a definite purpose. AND, when you reverse the order of the Latin titles (Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia) the first letter of each spells the phrase ERO CRAS, which can be translated: “Tomorrow, I will come.” And in fact, when we celebrate Christmas Liturgy, we recognizer this. St. Peter Julian Eymard said that we actually celebrate three births of Jesus; His birth in a manger in Bethlehem, His birth in the form of the Holy Eucharist, and His birth in our hearts (John 1:13). As I ponder Sheila’s passing, it seems there is a fourth: Today He was born in her Spirit, meeting her in her death—and she will be reborn in Him at the Resurrection.
Since 1995, my sister has kept a small oval-framed “note,” written in our mother’s hand, that reads:
Always when I walk by a church
I go in and make a “visit”
So when they wheel me in one day
God will not say, “Who is it?”
If I had to guess, today God did not say “Who is it?” as the angels escourtered her to Paradise.
As you know, death is often never easy, and I don’t believe we can ever fully “prepare” for the loss of a loved one. While theologically it is a day to celebrate — birth into Christ, a fulfillment of what began when at baptism we “put on Christ.” But in reality, for me, this remains a bit too abstract when the time actually arrives.
To all of you who prayed for the will of God to be accomplished in her suffering, I send my thanks! I was very close to my sister, and she will be deeply missed.
Since Autumn, I have journeyed intimately with her in her sickness, together with two nieces. (Her sons live in California and New Hampshire and were unavailable.) I walked “hand in hand” and “heart and heart” with her, beginning with the first doctor appointment that led to a CAT scan, later to a PET scan, and then MRI. I was there when she was told cancer had metastasized and was in bone, lymph, lung and liver. Little could be done.
During the many periods of “waiting” (how appropriate, when Advent arrived) for her emergence from a lab test or an examine room, time was filled with praying the Divine Office, or reading, including from the Rule. The doctors’ offices became my chapels; the hospital solarium my oratory.
Her death was a sacred journey — one in which I am quite familiar having worked in Pastoral Ministry in Boston when I was a member of Maryknoll—the Catholic Foreign Mission Society. My apostolate was, in part, to companion the dying and their families….But, it is so different, of course, when it is your own.
I have learned a few lessons from the dying with whom I shared their sojourn. They include that those who are afraid to die, often did not know how to live life fully — its joys and its pains…both. My sister’s story was clearly that she knew how to live robustly, and yet, for the past weeks expressed that she was not afraid to say goodbye. Another lesson was that time never completely heals the pain — but time is merciful, and teaches us how to manage the pain in a way that honors our journey and our spiritual growth, and shows love for the departed.
I was blessed from Autumn until now to become reacquainted with the church of my baptism. For perhaps two decades I assisted the pastors there, in many roles. I missed it dearly when I moved out of the area, and on to other activities and to other parishes. Now, decades later, I came knocking at their door. New staff had, of course, come and others gone, but the current Capuchin Franciscans, welcomed me with open hearts. So, when I would drive the four hours (round trip) from my home, I’d go to Mass, and take Holy Communion to my sister.
Last Sunday morning, I did not realize that the Communion she received would be viaticum, her last reception of the Body of Christ before death. By afternoon a priest had to be called to administer the Anointing of the Sick. In between “Communion” and “Anointing,” she asked me, while in a very lucid state, “Who is that standing there?” — weakly nodding toward the corner of the hospice room. I saw nothing, and inquired who she saw. In pure and simple tone she responded, “An angel.”
During the Anointing, she raised a quivering arm — something that she was normally too weak to do, and made the sign of the cross — three times. Not blessing herself, but blessing those of us around her! As she did this, there was an obvious, intense outward “stare” toward something she was seeing. Later, when alone, I asked her what she was looking at when she made the sign of the cross. She said, in a barely audible voice, “Angels.” Later she mentioned that the room was filled with them.
Last night, at 11 pm, with a two-hour drive ahead of me, I left her bedside. Since I carry an aspergillium for the rite of distribution of Communion, I turned at the doorway and sprinkled Holy Water on her and the room, praying, “God, may my sister receive your blessings and your peace. May this place be sanctified by your presence, In Christ’s name.” This morning I received a call from her son, who was now in town. In the night she slipped into a coma, and eventually into the arms of God.
In sadness, but also in prayer and deep appreciation for the presence of the Benedictine sisters and brothers — lay and professed — in my life, I give thanks. Few Christmas gifts could rival your companionship on the journey.
Brother Nicholas, Obl.S.B.
“Remember to keep death before your eyes daily,” St. Benedict, Rule (ch. 4)