The last enemy

“My dwelling, like a shepherd’s tent is struck down and borne away from me; You have folded up my life, like a weaver who cuts off the last thread” (Isaiah 38:11-12). I long dreaded these words, and prayed God to permit the thread to continue spinning.

I grew to love it here and thought the world radiated a stream of things that were bright and beautiful and alive. There was much to enjoy in this world. At many times in my life, I’ve had exhilarating feelings of life. I could be in wonder at the daily miracles of life: the light of a new day, a simple meal, watching the day slowly turn into evening. There was a kind of delight in being a human being.

Time taught me that life was not always benign. As Psalm 116 put it, “They caught me, sorrow and distress.” Trouble can always find us. Life is not always gentle. The world does bad things to us all. I had to wonder, is it the sort of life I would want to go on indefinitely? We are all preys to time, and everybody learns how awful the world can be.

According to St. Augustine, life is both a grace and a crippling burden. Life often ceases to be a joy and becomes an affliction. There are the infirmities, the protracted illnesses, the humiliating failure of the flesh that belong to the long process of aging. Life ceases to be a joy and becomes a burden. The world we once trusted hurts us. We become men and women “of sorrow and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). They are part of the package.

As I see it, the elderly generally grow lonely and tired, crushed by the separations and sorrows of life. They can give you a list of all whom they have loved and lost. There is so much loneliness in living, so much unredeemable loss. Many find themselves alone like Elijah under a broom tree saying to God “it is enough” (“sufficit” in Latin), now, O Lord, take my life” (1 Kgs. 19:4). People are haunted periodically by the thought that keeping on is not worth the struggle. Elderly people generally don’t put up much of a fuss about dying, and death usually gentles them out the door.

I sometimes wonder how I will do at dying. I hope to go off quietly—no doctors, no hospitals, no fear, no pain, giving as little trouble as possible—an “easeful death” as Keats called it (Ode to a Nightingale). Here are some comforting expressions about dying by some famous people:

“I thought dying was harder” (Louis XIV).

“It is so simple to die” (Carl Schurz, French dramatist, died 1660).

“Is this dying, is this all? Is this what I feared? Oh, I can bear this, I can bear this” (Cotton Mather, American Puritan preacher, died 1728).

“I’m not afraid to die, honey. In fact, I’m kind of looking forward to it” (Ethel Waters, American blues singer, died 1977).

“My work is done” (John Stuart Mill).

I’m comforted by a common scene depicted in the burial chambers in the catacombs of Callistus, in Rome. Seven youths are pictured gathered around a table, enjoying a convivial meal. The table is laden with two platters of fish. Seven large baskets brimming with loaves of bread stand on the floor beside the table. There is a flask of wine.

Early Christians held meals on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. These banquets were considered illustrating and parallel to the heavenly banquets the deceased person was enjoying in Paradise. The moral is that for all eternity the deceased will rejoice, never to know sorrow again, “and the days of your mourning shall come to an end” (Antiphon, morning prayer, Tuesday, week II of Advent).

I believe in the Resurrection of the dead. The Almighty Creator who called things from nothingness into being can also call humans from death into incorruptible life (Rom.4:17).

I believe death is the doorway to reunion with loved ones. The ties of love and affection which knots us as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death.

I hope to meet with God’s “well done.” And I will experience gratitude for the grandeur and vitality of my human life. I will give God thanks for the road I travelled, thank him for “my story.”

I’ll end with two stories of death-bed experiences in which I was involved. One involved a lady I knew for many years. There was silence for a long time. I held her hand. Eventually she said “I guess I’m going to leave.” I said “I know.” With a slight smile she said “I never died before.” I said, “I know.” In a whisper she said “I think we’ll make it. Tom.” Then she said “I want to pray a bit.” She whispered “My Father, take me home because of Jesus, and Father, take care of this good guy here. He has given me love, and he has been my friend. Amen.”

The second death-bed story involved a man I knew since high school. With his final words he said not “good-bye” but “forgive me.” It was the most profound good-bye I ever heard.