Receive, O Lord, Your Servant

Image 9As a young child, I had an almost pathological fear of losing my parents.  For years, I suffered from insomnia and would get up regularly to make sure both were breathing.  The memory of those last few moments, walking carefully in the dark towards my parents’ bed, steeling myself for the very real possibility that one or the other of them had stopped breathing, that I would touch the cold and lifeless body of a beloved parent, still evoke the raw and absolute terror of powerlessness of that young child.

In my last conversations with my dad, it was clear that his health problems have brought his mortality to sharp focus.  In fact, earlier this week, my brothers and I got an email from him that included  a series of pictures of all the luggage he owns.  He continues to be determined to sort through and let go of as much as he can so we will have less to do after he dies.  In his email he wondered which of the pieces of luggage we wanted him to hold on to that would be helpful to us as we brought home pieces of his and my mother’s home after he dies.  My first response was of mild irritation–a bit of drama, Dad?  Then of uncomfortable guilt and sorrow–I struggle with my inability to get down to see him more frequently, knowing how we both are blessed by those times sitting in front of the fireplace, visiting or simply reading together.  And there is respect for a person who is so determined to face into his own death with such a degree of dignity and concern for his children.

At about the same time I got the email from my dad at the beginning of the week, I found out that two women–both mothers of members of the parish I still am privileged to serve–and who had gotten very ill, were now reaching the end of life.  With my new schedule and fragmented responsibilities, getting to visit with each family was important and more than a little challenging.  Before, I would have dropped everything and just gone to see them.  Now I couldn’t. Now I had to arrange my schedule, coordinate and flex enough to meet the other responsibilities I had.

I got to a hospice room in one of the large hospitals in town a day later than I had hoped;  the minute I saw the person in the bed, I knew she did not have much time left.  Her family had come in from many different places and while I was first visiting, got awful news about another very close family member who had suddenly died.  After absorbing that loss, we gathered around the bed.  In the Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer, provisions are made for the clergy person to lay hands on a person who’s sick and say a prayer over them.  It wasn’t my touch she needed–I had never met her and it was so obvious how much her family loved her.  The prayer itself approximated my sense of what needed to be said but only if I modified it, asking not for healing as much as release and freedom from the illness that had snuck up on an extraordinarily active 84 year old and in a matter of three weeks had become fulminating.

Everyone laid hands on her.  Instead of saying, “I lay hands”, I said, “we lay hands.”  Those were hands of about 10 angels of love who held her in the presence of her maker as we prayed. I left with the sacred hollowness at my very core I’ve come to know as a grace, no words, not much of anything, but awareness of what an honor it is to be allowed presence in those thin spaces.  Less than half an hour after I left her room, she died.

She died while I was in visiting another mom, this one a mom I got to know in my time at St Ambrose.  She knit booties and a cap for my niece when she found out my brother and his wife were expecting a child.  She has been a parish matriarch.  I have come to love her son and daughter deeply.  I walked into her room in the nursing home and was struck by how much ground she had lost since my last visit.  I don’t think she recognized me but she was profuse as she thanked me for coming to see her.  Gracious to the very end.

I was on a video call for my other job yesterday morning when I got word that she was fading fast.   We were covering critically important stuff on the call and I simply could not just hang up.  I called the mama’s daughter and promised her that as soon as my call ended, I would get up to the nursing home.  And when my call ended, an agonizing 10 minutes later than scheduled, I hauled up the road in heavy rain, praying I wasn’t too late.  I came into the room right at noon.  This beautiful mom, parishioner, grandmother, had lost so much more ground in less than 24 hours.  Her children, granddaughter and I spoke for a few minutes and then I had a strong sense that it was time to pray.  Again, the prayers our BCP instruct me to say were not the right ones.  There were others that expressed what we all needed–even though they are the ones for a vigil after a person has died.

I guess I’ve been a priest long enough to know I needed to trust myself.  So we began an extraordinarily beautiful set of prayers and responses.  And while we were praying, without making a fuss of any kind, my friend slipped away.  A bit later, a rabbi friend came and visited, sang to her a lullaby he sings to his children.  Then he said the prayer of the Jewish faith at the time of death. I was struck by how very similar the words were to the ones we’d said a few minutes earlier.  I watched the hospice nurse who’d been a part of the family in this in-between time tend to the earthly remains of a woman who had lived very generously.  The nurse was so gentle and knew so much about how to tend to that frail and newly emptied vessel.  The way she laid E out was homage and blessing.  It was extraordinary and it was also extraordinarily ordinary–just the commonplace things you do because death is always in the midst of life and life in the midst of death.

Someone once said that everything we do in life is about learning how to die.  Along with figuring out how to grow lettuce and put a home office together and get a keyboard tray installed on my desk, I am learning, still learning.

A Prayer

Dear Friends: It was our Lord Jesus himself who said,
“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will
give you rest.” Let us pray, then, for our mother, E.,
that she may rest from her labors, and enter into the light
of God’s eternal sabbath rest.

Receive, O Lord, your servant, for she returns to you.
Into your hands, O Lord,
we commend our mother, E.

Wash her in the holy font of everlasting life, and clothe
her in her heavenly wedding garment.
Into your hands, O Lord, 
we commend our mother, E.

May I hear your words of invitation, “Come, you blessed of
my Father.”
Into your hands, O Lord, 
we commend our mother, E.

May she gaze upon you, Lord, face to face, and taste the
blessedness of perfect rest.
Into your hands, O Lord, 
we commend our mother, E.

May angels surround her, and saints welcome her in peace.
Into your hands, O Lord, 
we commend our mother, E.

Almighty God, our Father in heaven, before whom live all
who die in the Lord: Receive our mother E. into the courts of
your heavenly dwelling place. Let her heart and soul now ring
out in joy to you, O Lord, the living God, and the God of
those who live. This we ask through Christ our Lord. Amen.

3 thoughts on “Receive, O Lord, Your Servant

  1. Rosa,
    You don’t know me, but for the past five years my family has had death as a close companion. Beginning with my brother and followed by both sets of parents, grief seemed to be the only constant in our lives. Most recently, in March, my precious daddy died somewhat unexpectedly, at age 87. After the death of my mother, he had yearned and grieved for her so much, that I spent every spare moment with him. We became closer as he moved closer to death (or as he said, to be with my mother.). After 62 years together, it seemed impossible for him to think about life without her and his child, my brother.
    Being with him during his final journey was a remarkably holy time and I am so grateful for it. Even in death, the touch of his hand probably soothed me more than my presence helped him, because I am the last one left. I know, that he worked hard to stay with me to help me to be strong enough to survive alone; the final act of a loving parent.
    It is now Advent, one of my favorite times of the year, since we wait with anticipation. Similarly, I try to look upon the days before his death as a time of expectation and anticipation. Now, nine months after his death, your shared thoughts bring those moments back with such aching clarity and, while I still miss all three of them so much, especially as I prepare for a season of joy and celebration, I am grateful for the holy “space” that those last days and moments gave me.
    Thank you for reminding me!

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