I heard a preacher give a sermon on death one time called “Death’s vehicle.” He waxed eloquent as he informed the congregation: “Everybody’s death has a vehicle that takes them from this life over the bridge to the next. For some it’s cancer. For others it’s an accident. Or a heart attack. Or violence. Or just plain old age. But everybody’s death has a vehicle. The trick is to make sure your tank is filled up when your vehicle pulls up at the curb!”
My husband’s Great Aunt Kathryn Keller passed away 3 weeks ago. She was a translator for the Wycliffe Bible Translators. She spent her life in the Tabasco region of Mexico creating a written language for a tribe descended from the Mayans, the Chontal people and translating the Bible. My husband Murry and I are in Tucson now going through her trailer and saving mementos to send back to the family in Chambersburg, Pa. where she grew up.
Kathryn’s vehicle was what the doctors at first called pre-leukemia. “They say there is something wrong with my platelets,” she told me over the phone some months ago.” She began to have monthly, then weekly, then twice weekly transfusions. Then four weeks ago she fell in her trailer, became confused, and was hospitalized. When it was clear that the transfusions weren’t working anymore, she was moved to a transitional apartment where she spent the last 4 days of her life in hospice care, restless, feverish and mentally confused. Her vehicle had pulled up at the curb. A hospital chaplain dropped by to see her. He asked her “Katie, what’s the first thing you want to say to God when you see him?” Immediately her face cleared, her fog seemed to lift and she said, with a strong voice, “I’m going to tell him that I love him.” She fell silent, entered into a coma and died several hours later.
Devout Jews keep their spiritual tanks filled by reciting the Shema. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” (Deut 6:4) Shema Yisrael is the title of a prayer that sums up the monotheistic essence of Judaism. It serves as the centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services. Its twice daily recitation is regarded as a mitzvah (religious commandment). The words of the Shema are the words that parents teach their young children to say before they go to sleep each night. They are to be the last words of the devout Jew. They are the first words and they are the last.
Parents and grandparents taught Katie to “tell God that she loved him” growing up in the Lutheran Church in Chambersburg, Pa.
As a young woman and throughout her life she practiced telling God she loved him every day. Her journals that I’ve spent the past few days going through testify to that fact. So at the end, even in a fevered, confused state when physical and mental senses of direction had flickered out, the faith habit of a lifetime took the wheel. “I’m going to tell him that I love him.”
Sometimes it is a good thing that, as the saying goes, “old habits die hard.” I have no doubt that Katie’s last words were also her first.