Neither unhappy in death, nor completely dead

In the hours and then the few days after the passing of my mother, Margaret, I was faced with the difficult task of calling her many friends to give them the news. For those who knew Miss Maggie, as she was called, her passing was a shock, despite the fact that she had suffered 14 heart attacks from the age of 13, had survived breast cancer, had lived with congestive heart failure for six years and had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer only a few months before. The incongruity of surprise at the death of a frail, terminally ill 82-year-old was born out of the way she had lived. 

Maggie Bunson
Maggie Bunson. Photo courtesy of Matthew Bunson

Put simply, the last months of her earthly existence were a microcosm of her life. Miss Maggie died with her fiery spirit intact but accepting the will of God for her life, exactly as she had always done. To understand how she accomplished this, it is important to appreciate that over the years, she had cared for a husband and then her first-born son as they died slowly and horrendously from Huntington’s disease and held both in her arms as they drew their last breaths. Her own medical problems were compounded by the care she gave them. She was aware of the toll that it took but judged it a small price to pay for her love for them. 

In this was a lesson for us all. She spoke of dying openly, not with some grim resignation or some pretentious certainty of her salvation but with the understanding that God had chosen this particular time, in this particular place, to bring her home after what an English friend referred to as “good innings.” In the weeks before her death, she invited friends to visit and spoke with them without drama or clichés about what was coming. She gave them the advice they all expected to hear, told her unbelievable stories that had the benefit of all being completely true and said goodbye with the promise that they would see her again when God was ready. Tears were shed as many left, but virtually everyone commented to me that were she not so fragile looking they would not have believed she was dying. 

But it was not an act. Not some grand gesture at the end. She was long prepared to die, and in the last weeks she was ready as well. She was anointed the morning after she received the news of her cancer, and she woke at the very last from a deep cancer-induced pulmonary haze long enough to receive viaticum. 

Miss Maggie was a convert from the Episcopalian Church, and her family had despised Catholicism. She suffered terribly for her embrace of the Catholic faith, but she talked always that the Church is both her true home and her true family. More than that, she said proudly, the Church is where she found the Truth. In the decades after her conversion, she worked for the Church in chancery offices — adding ruefully that she kept her faith despite that — and had known countless prelates, priests, nuns and laypeople. Many had been of high rank and were among the powerful, but the example she took for her own life was the simple and faithful Catholic in the pew who strove for God in the islands of Hawaii where we lived for seventeen years. “You and I could teach a class on the virtues,” Miss Maggie once declared to me, “but they live them.” 

That was why even when she could no longer leave the house because of her chronic illnesses, she was happy to receive the Communion that I would bring home from Mass. Right to the final day, regardless of how tired she was, she climbed out of her bed and knelt before the Eucharist. 

A priest friend reminded me after her funeral Mass of St. Augustine’s own account of the death of his beloved and long-suffering mother, St. Monica. In words that could be used for Miss Maggie, the great Father of the Church wrote, “She was neither unhappy in death, nor was she completely dead. Of the one thing we were assured by reason of her character, of the other of the reality of our faith.” 

Matthew E. Bunson is the general editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Almanac and editor of The Catholic Answer magazine.