Saturday, June 19, 2021

Life and Death and Everything in Between

My 82-year-old mother's physical health has begun to decline more precipitously in the last several weeks. Though there doesn't seem to be any unusually imminent cause for concern that she is dying, she has been considerably weakened since being hospitalized for an infection last month.

After she broke her ankle in October 2019, she moved out of the condo in Arlington, Virginia to an Assisted Living Facility in the same area. It was supposed to be "temporary," until we were able to arrange for her to live with us in Front Royal (some 70 miles West). But Mom - who has long suffered from various chronic illnesses - was unable to recover her mobility after the injury. Then the COVID-19 crisis derailed everyone's plans. Meanwhile, Mom fared pretty well in her private residence at the facility (assisted by its ample staff) and decided she wanted to stay there permanently.

We are used to our mother finding creative ways to adapt her lifestyle in the face of decades of various illnesses. But now - although her mind remains alert when she is awake - her physical condition is much worse than it has ever been. Her cardiovascular system is weakening. She is an octogenarian, of course, who has never had a strong (physical) heart (whereas - as anyone who knows her will agree - her personal heart , the source of her human vitality, her freedom, and her capacity to love, has always been as strong as a lion). A heart condition may have something to do with why she fell, lost consiousness, and broke her ankle, and why she lacked strength for rehab. 

Right now Mom is very weak and exhausted physically, and the trajectory of her condition - especially since her recent hospital visit - suggests that she doesn't have a long time left with us. We are satisfied with her medical team, and have a good rapport with them. Right now she still eats well, and takes an especially lively interest in her grandchildren. But she sleeps most of the day, and can only handle short visits from us (and brief phone calls). Her most frequent words to us are, "I love you." I think that her great soul is finding peace, after a long life and many struggles - fighting the good fight, and so often rising to the occasion despite her own pain and the hindrances of her many illnesses. She still needs lots of prayers, of course, and all the love we can give her.

Personally, I find myself in a bewildering place in these days, with emotions of sorrow and anxiousness but also joy and expectation. I'm "stretched" across several generations of my own family. My mother is suffering, and this concern dominates my emotional space, but also mixes in with other happenings. On Tuesday, Eileen and I will celebrate our Silver Wedding Anniversary. Our daughter Lucia recently got engaged, and preparations for a wedding next June are already in the works. Then, of course, the granddaughter is all set to make her "grand" debut, out of the womb and into the light of day. John Paul's wife Emily is due around July 10. I will be "Papa" (grandfather) to this new baby who might live to see the 22nd century. 

I'll write more about these events as they occur. They are all important. They are changes for all of us (along with the "changes" I am discovering in myself as I proceed to transition into the stage of life that I call "Young Seniors"). I find myself in front of "life and death and everything in between," which is an awkward way of expressing this emotionally dizzy condition. I am grateful, overall, because there is so much reason for gratitude.

Meanwhile, I am trying to prepare myself to accept my mother's death when it comes (which could be in a week or a couple of months or a year or more), and also to prepare for whatever she may need between now and then. We don't know how her remaining time will unfold, and what kind of care she may need. (I pray that she will be will be with us long enough to kiss her great-granddaughter, and even spend some time with her.)

I said that I'm trying to "prepare myself" for all this, but I don't know how. This is a time when the Mystery who holds our lives is palpably evident precisely in what is most profoundly transcendent, what is most beyond our comprehension. We understand particular things and do particular actions, but it is clear that these efforts (though necessary) are inadequate. Ultimately a mysterious personal event is going to take place for my mother that will "complete" her life in all its facets, drawing her to fulfillment, but also involve that strange and painful "rupture" from this life, from being "with us" in this world. Through faith, hope, and love we know that we don't "lose" her ultimately - but to "find her again" we will have to endure the suffering of human separation and its process of grief.

This is something I cannot possibly control. For the moment, I do what I can, and then I pray. Where else can I go? Without God, the extremity of the end of life would appear absurd. Nihilism would be inevitable. Even with faith (and erudite theological explanations), it can be very hard to avoid feeling deflated and discouraged when the life of someone you love is being stripped away.

Suffering and death drive down to our very bones the tragic aspect of life, even for us who firmly believe that this tragedy is not the end of the story

We believe that Something Has Happened in human history, not to take away physical death nor remove suffering but to transform them from within, to fashion out of them the ultimate ways of love, the path through which what is mortal is clothed in immortality.

God did not make death. He planned to draw us to Himself in a more simple and tender fashion, still mysterious of course, but in a way that we could have followed like children who grow through education (in the most profound sense of the word). 

But the human race rejected God's way. We turned away from the Mystery, and chose instead to exalt ourselves by our own power, by grasping at the illusion that we could define ourselves and control our relationships with one another and the world. We, who were made for the Infinite, chose to put our trust in our own finite, limited power. It was the original sin by which the human race "nullified" God's "original gift," and shrunk away from the true human destiny, impoverishing humanity for all who came after, rendering human existence an apparently insoluble riddle.

God did not make death. We humans - His children - chose death at the beginning of human history. We chose the limits, the frustration, the pain, the solitude of death - and this tragedy became our heritage from generation to generation. We have no way of "fixing" ourselves.

But God continued to love immensely the human family He created. He only permitted us to stray because He had a more wonderful way of restoring and renewing us. God did this not by "taking away" the experience of death. Rather, God took human flesh, He entered our broken history, He became our brother and He Himself suffered death.

He passed through death and beyond death. He rose to eternal life, and we are called to join him "if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him" (Romans 8:17).

It's not easy to remember all of this in the midst of the seemingly overwhelming and "totalizing" experience of dying, or of losing a loved one. But it remains true. It may not always comfort us (though sometimes it will). Nevertheless we have to hang on to this mystery of salvation, these transforming events and the One who has accomplished them. Prayer is the way to "hang on" - even allowing our indigence, our agony, to become prayer. God is our Father. He loves us. He hears us, He is working, He is bringing forth a greater love from our powerlessness, our nothingness. 

We will still have much grief and many sorrows. It's part of being human in this present world. But the Lord didn't say to us, "Do not suffer." He said, "Do not be afraid" (see e.g. Luke 12:7, Rev 1:17, et alia).

In the hard moments, the sorrowful moments, the incomprehensible moments, the desperate moments, the final moments, God is with us.

He is with us in the anguish, the awful solitude, the flesh and blood of all of it.

He is Jesus, the Father's Eternal Word and the son of Mary, our God and our brother. He was born in Bethlehem, walked all the roads of our human life, worked a trade, spoke God's word with a human voice, felt hunger and thirst, healed the blind, the lame, and the sick. He revealed God's love and was put to death by us because we preferred our own narrow insipid loves, our covetousness, our grasp for our own power to control life and shrink it to our own measure. But His love was greater. He bore all our sins, our sorrows, our sufferings. He died, but in dying He destroyed the power of death, and rose in a transformed, indestructible, but also fully human life. He lives, and draws us to Himself, to eternal life, to a New Creation where God will be all, in all.

All of this is real. It remains real even when we don't feel it, even when it seems strange and incomprehensible. We must hold on to Jesus, and let Him hold us. Jesus will carry us through.