Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Preparing for Death #mementomori

Today's Gospel is a rather poignant one for our community in Boston. A woman whose life had been ebbing away with a hidden hemorrhage (which made her ritually unclean) grasps at Jesus' cloak--as close to him as she dares to come. And a desperate father leaves his dying daughter's bedside to beg for a miracle that no one has ever seen or imagined.

Like the long-suffering woman making her way toward Jesus through the crowd, we wait as Sr Charitas continues her long, slow-dance with the Lord, none of us knowing the day or the hour.

Meanwhile, a family close to our community who had long hoped to hear the healing words "Little girl, arise," are today laying their little girl, the same age as Jairus' daughter, to rest.

The flu epidemic, which hit our community last week, has so diminished our numbers that there are fewer of us to keep watch with Sr Charitas and to accompany the sorrowing family in their grief. Even in the grief, though, there are small points of consolation: little Christina, though consumed with cancer, was pain-free (without any pain medication) for her last two days. And her mom texted on Sunday, "Christina is waiting in Heaven for Sr Charitas."

When Sr Charitas first came home, the hospice nurse told us, "Now we wait on Sr Charitas' body to
tell us what to do." Truth to tell, none of us really expected the vigil to last twelve days or more. The nervous energy of the first week has subsided and we are trying to settle into a "new normal" for however long it lasts. Sr Charitas is often conscious and responsive to those who know her best. She has communicated that she is comfortable and needs nothing. The hospice nurse, who came to check on her during my last watch, pronounced our care "perfect." (Good to hear!) Meanwhile, the experience has me taking notes for the days of my own diminishment, if I should be granted that kind of time.

Even though many people today wish for a quick death, a wise tradition recommends that we pray for just the opposite: "From sudden death, deliver us, O Lord!" The idea behind this prayer is that we have time to repent of any serious sins and to receive the sacraments and all the blessings the Church bestows upon the dying, and even that we should surrender our lives into God's hands in a final act of freedom. When I was a girl, it was quite common for Catholics to carry a wallet card opposite one's driver's license that announced, "I am a Catholic. Please call a priest." The same is still often impressed on four-way medals. (A sudden death doesn't give you time for absolution and anointing, although I think priests generally give a conditional absolution in case the soul has not yet departed this life.)

Anyway, just as we are urged to have a "Medical Power of Attorney" document (and for Catholics, that document ought to specify our desire for end-of-life care that is consistent with Catholic moral values), I am preparing some last wishes for those who may have to care for me for a short or extended period of disability in my life. That way the sisters will not have to wonder what might be comforting to me. (Granted, I have no idea what might actually comfort me in a hypothetical future situation!)

So far my list includes the kind of prayers I hope to have offered around my bedside (Liturgical Morning, Evening and Night Prayer), my favorite Psalms (so far, 92, 138, 16, 139, 84), and a special request to have the Gospels and Letters of St Paul read (not proclaimed, just read aloud) consecutively. I hope the sisters will frequently renew the "Pauline Offertory" with me; that is our prayer of self-offering in union with Jesus in which the first intention is "in reparation for error and scandal spread throughout the world through the media." This is what drew me into the convent in the first place, so it would be lovely to go home to God in that spirit. I hope there won't be a lot of chatte in the room--though maybe I will change my mind on this. I have musical preferences, too.  If I have dementia and am uncooperative, set the necessary task to music and I will be putty in your hands.  But please don't put on a piano sonata CD. It will only set my nerves on edge!
  • What have  you learned about yourself from caring for a loved one? 
  • Do you have a Medical Power of Attorney document? 
  • Do your health care proxies know and understand the nuanced Catholic position on end-of-life care?
  • Are you drawing up "pastoral care instructions" so your loved ones know what things might bring you spiritual comfort if you are incapacitated?
More resources on end of life issues are listed on the US Catholic Bishops' site.

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