Death comes to us all. It is a hard reality, but it is a reality that we can face with hope through our faith in Christ Jesus. Meanwhile, we live in a culture that largely ignores death. We hear mantras such as “You only live once” or “Live today like it is your last”, but these are typically expressions to assuage guilt over leading an immoral life. The reality of death is also ignored by the majority of people because death is something that is hidden or locked away in Western culture until we are faced with it. The only time it seems to be discussed is when a group is pushing for “mercy” through euthanasia.
I know I have largely lived as if death was some far-off reality. This makes little sense since I was a 9/11 relief worker and confronted the hard realities of violence and death at 20 years of age. I profess, along with my fellow Catholics, the teachings of the Church each Sunday which discuss the Last Things. It was not until recently, when my husband’s health took a dramatic turn, that I began to confront death. We are confronting it together, as married couples must.
Two months ago, I woke up at 4:30 AM to my husband yelling for me. He was standing over our sink coughing up a large quantity of bright red blood. He had coughed up blood a few years ago and had a lesion on his lungs, but it healed and we thought it was some kind of fluke. It wasn’t. Instead, what happened a few years ago was the first sign of symptoms of a mysterious disease. Over the course of the last couple of months, doctors have ruled out every normal possibility from tuberculosis to bronchitis to fungal infections. He’s been negative on every single test and more cavitary lesions (holes, for lack of a better word) continue to form in his lungs. We are now faced with a series of intense tests to definitively see if my husband has a very rare disease known as pulmonary vasculitis. He will have an open lung biopsy performed by a thoracic surgeon in the next couple of weeks along with a MRI, MRA, even more bloodwork, and the list goes on. A neurologist has also been brought in to begin seeing if he has the even rarer form of brain vasculitis. It’s a difficult disease to diagnose and treat. It comes with serious risks, including premature death.
This period has been marked by immense grace. God truly gives us the strength we need to confront the hardships of this life as they come. It doesn’t mean any of this is easy.
I can’t make it through daily Mass without sobbing right now. I continually pray for my husband to be made a saint before the end. It is a prayer that has welled up from deep springs within me that I didn’t even know existed until now. My first prayer was not, “Heal him”, it was “Please Lord, make him a saint before the end.” Instead, my husband and I have found ourselves in the Garden of Gethsemane asking for God to take this, but that His will be done. It has revealed to us immense strength and shown us how the Holy Spirit is working within our marriage as we go through this period of refinement. It is the eventual letting go of our own desires, dreams, and will so that we may be conformed to God. It isn’t easy to let go of those dreams, but we are confident that God will work for our good in all of this, even if death is coming sooner than we had hoped for my husband. We don’t know, yet. We should have a full diagnosis in August. Until then, we continue to pray and plan for best and worst-case scenarios, including those painful, but necessary discussions about funeral Masses, burial, bills, and how our daughter and I will be taken care of when he is gone. There is even grace in these deeply hard discussions.
As Catholics, we need to meet death in hope and courage. We live in a culture that is obsessed with unnatural ways to die, but that ignores death in the day-to-day. Moral therapeutic deism has infected certain circles of the Church and funeral Masses have been turned into superficial warm and fuzzy occasions. We have an obligation in charity to pray for the dead. Purgatory is doctrine and it is a possibility for all of us who do not die ready for Heaven, but in a state of grace. Funerals are not remembrance services. They are great acts of charity as we pray for the repose of the soul of our loved ones and commend them to God. If we live in this knowledge, then we can be more prepared when mortality shows itself in full force within our marriages and our lives. We must confront death as Catholics, not as something artificial, counterfeit, or false. Our hope is in Jesus Christ and we are called to holiness, including abandonment of all things to God. We are called to be saints.
The strength God is giving to my husband is awe-inspiring to behold. It is a strength that can only come from God. My husband is able to pick me up when I stumble on the path because the weight of all of this becomes too much. As Phil and I walk together, deep well-springs of living water come out of the depths to refresh us, so that we can confront a new series of intense, scary, and extremely expensive medical tests. We can trust that God will provide, even if it means my husband will leave me a young widow. This is all grace. We have been given a gift to prepare should my husband die. We can be prepared, strengthened, and sanctified through this period. We have an opportunity to love one another more deeply now. If we ignore death and pretend that it is off in the distant horizon, then we miss out on an opportunity to grow in holiness and to experience the depths of love that can only be explored in death. If the disease takes many years, we have been the gift of truly living the life of love and holiness God desired for us through the good that could only be brought about by this pain. Suffering is a requirement for holiness. We must be purified and refined, if not in this life, then in Purgatory. It is not easy and I am astounded at my ability to confront this pain and suffering. In reality it isn’t me, it’s Christ within me. Let us boldly live as Catholics even unto death. Please pray for us during this time.
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur, and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.
In my beginning is my end. Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon,
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotized. In a warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not reflected, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence.
Wait for the early owl.
In that open field
If you do not come too close, if you do not come too close,
On a summer midnight, you can hear the music
Of the weak pipe and the little drum
And see them dancing around the bonfire
The association of man and woman
In daunsinge, signifying matrimonie—
A dignified and commodiois sacrament.
Two and two, necessarye coniunction,
Holding eche other by the hand or the arm
Whiche betokeneth concorde. Round and round the fire
Leaping through the flames, or joined in circles,
Rustically solemn or in rustic laughter
Lifting heavy feet in clumsy shoes,
Earth feet, loam feet, lifted in country mirth
Mirth of those long since under earth
Nourishing the corn. Keeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living seasons
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling.
Eating and drinking. Dung and death.
Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning.
From T.S. Eliot’s “East Coker”
(My father read this poem to my grandfather as he died).
image: Domenico di Bartolo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons