Today I received a very early morning phone call that each of us dread. You know, the one that has you taking stock of who is home and who is not; who is well, and who is not. That call.
It was my mother. She informed me that my aunt had been put in the hospital around 2:00, suffering from pnuemonia in both of her lungs.
My aunt is an 87 year old “old maid.” My memories from my youth of her include her great attitude and funny laugh. She was the over-indulgent host when we would stop by the apartment she shared with her older sister, making simple meals and throwing in hot dogs (which she referred to as “wieners,” which always got a laugh out of us kids) to make sure no one went hungry. She was also the sweater lady. It must have been menopause, because there was a span of several years that she would have on three, four sweaters at a time, even in warm weather. I can always imagine her in those layers of sweaters. But mostly, my memories are of her Irish laugh, which was always at the edge of every conversation.
This spunky little Irish woman had had a rough year. She was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. She went through a bout of depression.Several illnesses. But despite all of these ailments, she was in pretty high spirits recently. So it was troubling how fast this all came up.Yesterday she ran a fever and was vomiting, and last night it turnedinto double pnuemonia.
After the call came in, I quickly washed and dressed, then headed out to the hospital, anticipating saying my good-byes and then returning home after an hour or so. When I got to the hospital, my mom and oldest sister were there. They both looked pretty tired. Mom had been up all night, and my sister had been there since 7:00. It was now 8:00. I preceded to say my goodbyes, but I realized that it would be hard for me to leave. Mom needed a break, my sister needed to break the news to my other aunt at the nursing home, and someone needed to stay at the hospital with my dying aunt, who had not been unresponsive since 3:00 in the morning.
Around 10:00 we thought we were going to lose her. By that time, my brother-in-law had arrived. We debated about calling my mother and waking her (she was planning to be back around 11:00). We decided to hold off, and thank goodness, my aunt held off too.
At 11:00, everyone who was going to be there was there: my two sisters, my mother and stepfather, my brother-in-law, and myself. We asked for the chaplain to come and say a few words. He didn’t get there until after 12:30. His words were comforting for all of us. At that time, we decided it was time to let her go.
Our caring and supportive nurse removed all the tubes and turned off all the machines. We watched my aunt’s breathing become more shallow in just a few minutes. After about five or ten minutes, my aunt, who had been non-responsive for the entire morning, opened her eyes so wide her eyebrows arched. She stared into the space above our heads, her eyes moving back and forth as though watching a movie. She stayed that way for about five minutes. She was unable to talk, but her expression showed us that she clearly was seeing something that we, mere mortals, were unable to see. Afterward, her eyes began to close, and within minutes she had passed.
I think everyone has their story to tell about the miracle of death.We’ve either witnessed something similar or have heard of someone who had a similar experience. It is truly a miracle. But it is also a storyof faith. At that moment, when you see the person recognize a passed loved one, or gaze into the eyes of an angel or God or a master, you understand faith. It sits down in the room with you. It becomes the 600 pound gorilla in the room. It says, “Here I am. I am Faith. I am in your presence.”