My mother wasn't one to speculate about life after death. One midnight when she was 90 and lying on a stretcher waiting to be taken into surgery to relieve a bowel obstruction, we heard her small voice, "I'm anxious to get to heaven. To be with Daddy, of course." The surgeon had asked her what she wanted done if her heart were to stop beating during the operation. "Let me go. Let me go," was her immediate reply.
Though I treasure the conversations we had over the last weeks of her life, she and I never lapsed into deep theological discussions about the meaning of life for her-or death, for that matter. Mama was more interested in telling stories. About how she met Daddy in college. How one Sunday they were hanging out with another couple and someone said, "I sure could eat a piece of pie right now." Daddy, who worked in the college kitchen to pay for his education, snuck over and stole a pie, which they all enjoyed.
"He never really felt right about stealing that pie," Mama said. I'm not so sure — Daddy had a mischievous streak and I could picture him stealing a pie. I thought Mama was protecting our father's dignity and virtue, something she never failed to do. She said Daddy wasn't like other boys who might want to "fawn all over you." They began dating in September, and not until Christmas did he kiss her. "A little peck right here," Mama said, pointing to one soft, wrinkled cheek.
To ease the family finances, Mama began teaching school when her youngest child was 7 months old. As death neared, she relived hilarious stories about the trials she and our father endured when various hired girls came to help our family of eight children. One girl put acorn squash in the oven without first cutting it in halves and cleaning out the insides. Another took scissors and cut the corners (clothespins and all) off diapers that had frozen to the clothesline. A third asked my mother when she returned home from teaching, "Do you let these kids eat chewing gum off the floor? They told me you did."
In 1997, I met Dorothy Bass at Holden Village. Bass had edited Practicing our Faith (Jossey-Bass, 1998), which we studied in the winter community. I wrote reflections on several of the practices that were most meaningful for my faith: "Honoring the Body," "Saying Yes and Saying No," "Keeping Sabbath," "Testimony," "Shaping Communities," and "Forgiveness." For the life of me, I didn't know how to reflect on Bass' chapter "Dying Well."
Can a person die poorly? At the end of a career spanning more than 20 years as a nurse and chaplain in nursing homes, I now can answer "yes". Surprisingly, a poor death isn't often due to disease or infirmity. End-of-life nurses and hospice care very often ensure that people will die relatively free of physical pain. Even if that weren't the case, the people whom I would describe as dying poorly were those who had lived in the same way — doggedly hanging onto bitterness and unforgiveness, unable to let go of disappointment and remorse.
Until the moment she died, my mother taught us how to live. As nomads she and my father spent 10 of their retirement years traveling the U.S. in a roving vehicle doing countless hours of volunteer work in Christ's service. Having a special compassion for the underdog, as she would say. Caring deeply about the least and the lost among us. Giving over to God the circumstances she could not change or understand. Loving people and not things. Rejoicing in each day, not dwelling on the pains and disappointments but on the joys of family and the faithfulness and goodness of God. Believing to the core of her being that by the grace of God, tomorrow things would be better. "I'll be better tomorrow" were her parting words to us on the last days of her life.
My mother died well because the same could be said of her as poet Kathleen Norris writes of one ancient monastic who said of another: "Every day she made a new beginning." Thanks be to God.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers