Faith to Live, Faith to Die

I spent yesterday with an almost 90 year old woman I’ve loved for decades, just home from the hospital following congestive heart failure.

A cracker jack team of doctors, as well as a bevy of loving friends and family members, have surrounded her all week, attempting to figure out exactly what is causing her heart to weaken and not pump efficiently. They’re talking about medicine and diet and possible surgery.

She’s clear, herself, about what’s going on: “I’m old,” she says calmly. “My heart is old.” She seems completely at peace with what will happen next, be it more tests and fussing, be it, ultimately, drawing her last breath on this planet sooner rather than later. I can see from her strength that she won’t do anything she doesn’t want to do, but she isn’t troubled by what other people need to do around her either.

Her devout Catholic faith brings her great comfort now, as it has every day of her life.
The priest has been to see her at her hospital bedside, performed what she says is no longer called last rites but “prayer for the sick” and told her, “Your sins are all forgiven now, so don’t mess it up!” She twinkles when she repeats this.

Her daughter, who practices Vipassana Buddhist meditation, spoke to her in awe about her clarity and peace. “Mom, this is what meditation is all about – developing the kind of serenity that you have, no matter what happens! How did you get this way?” to which she simply smiled, and shrugged, as if it were nothing. Just another day in a quietly heroic life.

I’ve watched a number of people meet their deaths over the years, or face sickness and old age, and each time I see someone exhibiting this kind of grace, I pray that I will be like them. I pray that I won’t be fussing over the annoyance of an oxygen tank or telling people to get out of the room and give me some space, but that, rather, I will welcome the presence of others with this kindness and acceptance.

My own mother was a mentor. A lifelong atheist, she told me in her dying days, “They say there are no atheists in foxholes, but here I am. I’m not afraid to die!” Her courage and strength in her final days caused everyone at the hospice to comment on her faith. This seemed a little ironic to me, so I told my Mom what those around her were saying.

She responded, “Faith is how you live, not what you believe.” And when a hospice nurse started praying over her in the name of Jesus, my Mom waved away my scowling reaction. “It’s for her, honey,” she said quietly. “It makes her feel better. I don’t mind her prayers at all.” I, ostensibly a person of faith, pray I won’t be snarling at the well-meaning nurse by my side about church/ state separation.”

Watching these beloved women, and so many others, meet their final days, tells me that faith is indeed how you live, not what you believe. Their beliefs couldn’t be further from each other. And yet, for each of them, as for the rest of us, how they’ve lived, and how they die, is truly faith in action.

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