Back in September 2007, my last surviving grandparent died. My mother’s mother. She was a week away from her one hundredth birthday.
Two months later, my first grandchild was born.
Now, I’ve never really thought that my grandmother’s departure made way for my grandson, or that by coming into the world he somehow took her place. They were and are each their own person. But the symmetry and close proximity of one generation passing, and another arising, intrigues me. Something about the mysterious circle of life. That the living and the dead remain joined to one another.
I was not at my grandmother’s bedside when she departed this life. My mother was and told me what she saw and heard. I did get to hold my grandson the first full day after his arrival. And I stayed on a week with him and his parents in the hospital and at home. For you see, something else links these two people a hundred years apart in age. Both the dying and the newborn are watched over by others for long periods of time while they sleep or lie unconscious. Watched over. The only comparable experience I can point to – as a member of the generations in between – is being anesthetized for a medical procedure or surgery. There’s a moment of distress, alarm even, when the nurse informs me that the sedative has started flowing through the IV into my arm. I know I’m going to sleep whether I want to or not and lie there helpless, vulnerable, with all those other people around me. Watching over.
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I think about the mysterious cycle of life and my grandmother and grandson on this Commemoration of All Faithful Departed. From beginning to end, our requiem mass prays that the departed might rest in peace. The book of Wisdom encourages us that although in the eyes of others they seem to have died and their departure thought a disaster, the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God; God who watches over God’s own (3:1-3, 9). Paul writes that the dead in Christ will rise first – going on before the living – and that we who are left alive will be caught up with them to meet the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). In our gospel reading from John, Jesus proclaims that the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and live (5:25).
Consider what we do at St. Paul’s this evening for our commemoration of those we love but see no longer. We take time to write out their names. We take time to read their names out loud. We name them to remember them, to invoke their presence in this space, to re-join them to us and us to them as members of one mysterious circle of life. And then we leave this our space behind and go somewhere else – the Bolster Memorial Garden. We the living visit the departed in their space for awhile. We greet them with our presence, with candlelight and incense and words of prayer. Even if their remains lie thousands of miles away, all faithful departed always await us in the garden.
Which makes me wonder, who’s watching over whom? We the living watch over hhe departed this one evening, intentionally and liturgically. Don’t they watch over us every day? Makes me wonder how they manage to watch over us in this broken world with our broken lives and still rest in peace – “here,” as our communion hymn will say later, “mid stress and conflict, toils can never cease” (Hymnal 1982, #357)? How we watch over them without disturbing their rest? I wonder if we the living might learn from the departed and their watching over us to watch over them and others who are still alive and ourselves in peace? Without distress?
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This evening is the first time my mother’s name will be read as part of our commemoration of all faithful departed. People called her Betty, but her name is Elizabeth. Elizabeth, Betty, Mom died last year on Saturday, December 22 at 7:01pm Central Time. I wasn’t in her room at the skilled nursing facility in Kansas. But thanks to my sister’s smartphone, I was able to see Mom’s face as she lay in bed, and I believe she saw mine. I read Psalm 103 and 23 to her and a prayer that begins, “Eternal God, you call us to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,…” She mouthed silent words in return. Later, I just watched over her, breathing so slowly, from my sister’s chair across the room.
The next day was the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Without much sleep, but after having looked at lots of old photos, I came to the 9:00am mass in this space. I sat over there beside mother Mary and baby Jesus. The gospel reading for the day was the story of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth and how the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaped for joy at Mary’s greeting and the coming of Jesus (Luke 1:39-45).
When I got home, my wife Debra – who was a week into her radiation treatments – told me she had seen a vision of Jesus lifting Mom up by the hand from her deathbed. She grew younger as she rose.
And the next day was Christmas Eve. Here are fragments of the entry I made in my journal for December 24-25, 2018.
- I’d been a little unhinged mentally and verbally all day – but in a funny, playful, silly way
- being at Swedish Cancer radiation again was amazing = the woman with her husband who take the ferry – Celeste and Devontia and Velma – lots of hugs, laughter. such a diverse community – such commonality = cancer = for so many different people – so many types of support people: children and parents, spouses, friends. Debra brought donuts = much appreciated
- so, Mass. still I was not at all distressed or anxious – feeling playful. great figure 8 procession to begin, just got caught up in that. then we sat for the liturgy of the Word – and somewhere toward the middle of the first reading (Isaiah) I realized everything felt light and open and outward, not heavy and inward. my first thought – and it just came to me – or maybe it was a moment of recognition of what the lightness was = Mom smiling down at me. that she was enjoying what we were doing for our Christmas Eve service – and that she was at peace and free from all the ailments of the past 10 years
- maybe my experience was a continuation of, made possible by, Debra’s vision – Jesus’ hand lifting Mom from her bed and as she rose higher and higher she became younger and younger until she was the 19 year old in her engagement photo
- now that she has been raised up, she could smile down on me during Midnight Mass”