Death and grace

My son, son-in-law and I had just pulled an all-nighter at my mom’s bedside, where she had received the last sacraments. My house was only a few minutes away from the nursing home, so we returned there for showers and a few hours’ rest. 

Exhausted, I plopped onto the living room couch. Just as I was about to close my eyes, I saw Ana, our 15-month-old granddaughter, toddling toward me, grinning, with a Nuk pacifier in her mouth and her blankie in tow, which she then placed on my chest. 

As she turned and crossed the living room, I said, “Oh, thank you, Ana!” 

Still grinning, she waddled back with a small storybook and plunked it on my chest. 

“Thank you, Ana.” 

Crossing the room once more, the happy “little mother” picked up her dolly and was coming back a third time when the diaper patrol (her mother/my daughter) literally swept her off her feet, to retire to the “ladies powder room,” to “freshen up.” 

It was the first time in my life that I actually laughed and cried at the same time. Little Ana was tucking Grandpa into bed! 

Mom died peacefully a few days later, and I’ve kept this moment of grace in my heart. 

A few years later, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease were taking their toll on Dad, and we knew that his earthly pilgrimage was almost over.  

It was Memorial Day, and the nursing home staff helped me get Dad into the car for a last drive in the countryside. (I have many childhood memories of my father taking Mom and us kids on these “Hoosier excursions.”) 

Dad couldn’t say much, but I knew from the peaceful look on his face, and the occasional smile, that he was enjoying the ride. 

Dad died two days later. As with Mom, I arrived a few minutes too late to be with him when Sister Death (as Franciscans refer to “her”) came calling. But as we gazed on Dad, and his now peaceful countenance, the two nurses and I quietly prayed a Hail Mary and wished him eternal rest. 

After the funeral Mass, at the cemetery, I noticed that the pallbearers (including my son-in-law) were quietly laughing among themselves.  

They explained that, while I was helping my sister out a side door, to a car, and as they were carrying Dad’s casket down the front steps of the church, my granddaughter Ana, now 3 1/2 years old, peered anxiously through the railing and shouted, “Don’t drop him, Daddy!” Knowing my father’s sense of humor, I could almost hear laughter from his side of eternity. More moments of grace. 

This past February, it was my older sister Cheryl’s turn.  

My only sibling had had a hard, painful life, but one that she had filled with faith, and with a love for family and friends. After several years in a nursing home, she was now in a hospice center, unconscious, dying of pneumonia. 

The nurse knew, by Cheryl’s labored breathing, that death was very near. All of the immediate family (including my second firecracker granddaughter, Aubrey, who was now unusually quiet) had said their good-byes, leaving my daughter and I in the room. 

We then began what I now call the “Litany of the Relatives,” starting with “Mom and Dad are waiting for you, Cheryl” and continuing with the relatives that had gone before us: “Uncle Ben and Aunt Addie, they’re waiting for you, Cheryl … Uncle Clete … Uncle Bill … Aunt Libbie and Aunt Eloise … they’re all waiting for you …” 

Still unconscious, Cheryl’s body had been struggling for life, but now her breathing became very shallow. Then I remembered Patty. 

Patty was a cousin who had been born several years before Cheryl. Although Patty only lived a few hours, it was long enough for her to be baptized.  

In our family, she was always the little saint, too young to have experienced sin but old enough to be born into eternal life. 

It was almost as though, in that deathbed room, Patty tapped me on the shoulder and gently asked, “Remember me?” And so, continuing the litany, holding Cheryl’s hand, I softly said, “Cheryl … Patty’s waiting for you.” 

Cheryl became totally still, and we knew that she had joined Mom and Dad — and Patty. I believe that it was Patty who welcomed Cheryl into eternity that night. 

I am so grateful to our “little saint,” and to all of our family members who have gone before us, part of that great “cloud of witnesses” that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 12:1) speaks of. 

My “family of origin” has crossed over, as the saying goes, with all of them leaving this earthly life after having received the last sacraments of the Church as a loving, parting gift from the People of God. And I am left with wonderful memories of life and, yes, even of death. 

Moments of grace are all around me, if I but see with the eyes of faith.

George Foster is an Our Sunday Visitor book project editor.