It’s a genuinely painful, but also rather good experience, to watch someone taking their leisurely leave of this world. I might not have written those words a few days ago, but things are happening, and changing.
As my brother S makes what appears to be a final lap around the days and seasons of his own life, some beautiful mystery is being played out before our eyes. I think we might be witnessing grace.
We have been watching S make his unhurried exit for a few months, but these last few days have been a compelling mix of lunacy and sorrow. The thin line that separates our laughter from our tears has seemed to been completely erased, and in its place there is this wonder as we witness an ongoing dialogue between S and various people – unseen by any of us – who are gathering in his room and leading him through something that is perhaps full of glory.
Last night, the room became filled with a most gorgeous scent, it seemed to me to be roses and frankincense – the odor reminded me of the oil of chrism you can smell on your child’s hair after baptism, but more intense. It filled the room. I asked a nurse if she could smell it and she smiled and said, “yes, of course. You know what it is.”
I dare not say what I suspect it is, but I wonder. A breath of heaven? It would not surprise me. S actually looks better than he has in weeks. His skin has a glow to it, and he seems comfortable. I was reminded of Corrie Ten Boom’s book, The Hiding Place wherein she discusses the death of her beloved sister, Betsy, and how Betsy’s features, even in a terrible death, became lovely and glowing. It is much the same, here.
But there is more. Over the past month we have – all of us – repeatedly told S that he could go – that when he wanted to go he could, that we would all be fine. And his response was always to murmur, “thank you.” But he seemed in no hurry to get moving. Last night, listening to his conversation with the Unseen, I began to appreciate why.
When you approach S now, he blows you a kiss and then recognition fades as he turns his attention back to Whomever. He calls her “Ma’am,” when he is conversing and “Mary” when he is a little more agitated. Last night he seemed to spend five hours reviewing his life with “Ma’am.” He would talk about pets long-gone. He named all of his brothers. “I know my mother and father will be okay,” he said. At times he would gasp and say, “How beautiful! It’s so pretty!” A while later, annoyed, he said, “why are you showing that to me?” He talked about old boyfriends, and later still, “I’m sorry. I apologize. Please forgive my mistakes because I made some.” A smile breaks through. “Alright, then. Amen. Bless you.” And then, “You’re her son? She’s your mother? But you’re so tall! Am I going home with you? Would you like me to drive?”
The chatter went on into the wee small hours, when we simply couldn’t stay any longer. His brothers were sleeping around him and S, shot through with morphine and other drugs in quantities that would take out a horse was still wide awake and talking. He smiled often.
A brilliant friend of mine suggests that what is being played out here is a moment of grace. He dropped me a note that spelled it out clearly. In my weariness, I could not articulate it, but he says it well:
This is all serving a purpose. A giant purpose. Just as the unseen core of the Church labors in obscurity holding the line against heresy, while the visible church flails around like a detoxing drunk with the DTs, this incredible death-scene is serving an unseen purpose of great importance. What matter is it that people are exhausted and wrung out if…by your sacrifice and effort, S is sustained long enough to come to Jesus in a pure and beautiful way? What a glorious thing to contemplate. That by our labors he is given enough grace to heal the chasm in his spirit?
Aye, glorious it is.