Mercy Moments: Season Two, Episode Six
…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
From “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver
It was the day after I had been dumped, and I hadn’t told anyone yet. My co-workers in the High School Campus Ministry office were planning the Mass of the Holy Spirit, an annual celebration to mark the start of the school year, while reminiscing about the liturgical music they had included in their weddings. After the two of them had shared several favorite musical memories from their special days, they casually asked me if I had any songs I had planned to have at my wedding. Later Kathleen would tell me she had thought my reaction was strange, and I suppose it was for anyone who didn’t yet know I was in the middle of a breakup.
I told them, “I’m not really sure about my wedding, but I’ve got tons of songs planned for my funeral.” I took out a blue post-it note and started a list. Throughout the remainder of the day, I continued to add songs.
It’s going to be a great funeral – planned well in advance.
Several years after I began the blue post-it funeral songs list, I stuck the note on Kathleen’s desk before I left the country to embark on a 40 day pilgrimage. On foot. Alone. I left a note next to the blue post-it that read “Just in case.” Even today, I keep the blue post-it in my glove compartment where anyone can find it. Just in case.
Is this morbid? I don’t think so, and here’s why.
First, we grew up in cemeteries. They were perfect locations for family hikes and exploring, dress-up and picnics, pre-ancestry.com family tree discoveries and even high school track practice. I’m assuming we also attended graveside services at some point, but any burials are far less memorable than the rest of our time spent in graveyards. Whereas many people are uncomfortable, fearful, or grief stricken at the notion of visiting cemeteries; we always felt at home.
Someone else who regularly visited cemeteries was Bob, a favorite priest who we used to invite often to celebrate Mass with us at the high school. Anytime I’d ask him about something new we wanted to include in the liturgy – usually an attempt at giving students a greater ownership of their faith or a creative expression of community – he would always respond, “If we go to hell, it won’t be for that.”
During one memorable homily, Bob shared how he was drawn to the priesthood. As a young boy, his brother drowned in the local river. Missing his brother, he began to visit his grave daily just so he could be with him. Bob’s mom wasn’t keen on him making the trek to the cemetery on his own so often and asked why he needed to visit the grave with such frequency. When he shared that he just wanted to be close to his brother, his mom recommended he instead visit his brother at daily Mass.
And so, Bob began to attend daily Mass to be with his brother. Sixty some years later, Bob was still attending daily Mass – presumably with his brother present – recognizing their relationship transcended time and space. As the years went on, at the end of any liturgy, I’d invite Bob to a future school Mass and he’d respond, “If I’m still here, I’ll be here.” Bob passed away last July. Since I had moved, I didn’t know he was sick, but I had been thinking about him.
I wound up texting him a few days before he passed. He didn’t respond, but I’m grateful I sent the message anyway.
A few weeks before my maternal grandma, Omi, passed away, I was in Ecuador with a group of students. We were visiting a residential hospital for people living with the effects of Hansen’s disease (formerly known as leprosy).
Sr. Annie, the founder of the hospital, shared with our group that one of the longtime residents had passed away that week. Patients, staff, family, and friends had kept vigil as death drew near. They sang. They prayed. They laughed and shared. And then in the final hour, his sister, with whom he had not spoken in years, entered the room to reconcile with her brother; promising all was forgiven. Now at peace, the community that had gathered in the small room which he had called home for some decades, sent him to God. Annie couldn’t emphasize enough the gift it was to send someone to God and encouraged us, if ever given the opportunity, not to shy away or even fear it, but rather to embrace it as a mutual blessing.
The day I returned from Ecuador, Omi fell, breaking her hip, while exiting the church where she had just been for adoration. Despite her final words to the surgeon, “just make sure I wake up” she never did. In the days following her surgery, family members visited, first in the hospital and then in her home with hospice care, and all the while I couldn’t stop thinking about Annie’s encouragement to embrace the opportunity to send someone to God. And so we did.
During my training as a birth and postpartum doula, my instructor shared that she was also a death doula. That was a new concept for me. Doulas had always been about labor, birth and new life. Including death seemed contrary to the very definition of doula. But then Latham described the care with which she had prepared her grandma for death and not only what she did for her grandma, but what her grandma was able to do for herself with the support of her loved ones.
They prepared each other and were ready when it was time to send her grandma to God. The circle of life. As soon as we’re born, we start dying. Of course there are death doulas.
Memento Mori, Latin for “Remember your death”, is an ancient practice of reflecting on the transient nature of earthly life. Made popular during medieval times, it’s had a comeback in recent years. It has been found that in meditating on the inevitability of our own death, we might learn to live well, even experiencing healing and hope along the way.
Or as Mary Oliver wrote, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
The culmination of our Lenten journeys is Good Friday when even Jesus doesn’t escape death. As we pray remembering his death, may we too remember our own.
To live well is to die well.
Let us prepare for our deaths with prayer and post-its, doulas and dappled things, and above all, with great hope in the resurrection.