“Community,” a circle of love, St. Benedict’s Monastery, Minnesota
Shortly after writing this post, I will leave my spot to head to the palliative care unit of the hospital, where I will enter the space of a dying man; a man who entered this world about eight months after I did; a man named Ryan.
Leave it to Ryan, someone who possessed a rock-solid faith, to enter into the final phase of life the same week we commemorate the death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
We are nearing the end of Lent, and death is coming in just a matter of days, they say.
Just hours ago I received word that Ryan is letting go of this world after a significant battle with brain cancer. His breathing has changed. His tumor has grown. His body is failing him and there is nothing humanly possible anyone can do to change the course of things. All we can do now is wait with him and pray for grace.
Ryan: husband of one lovely wife and father of three young and lively children. In many ways, his life had just begun. And yet, his beloved, Lori, reports at this hour that “he’s at peace with the situation and knows that God is in control.” She’s requested round-the-clock Rosaries for Ryan in these final days to offer him strength and courage to endure what’s ahead.
This morning, I began to flesh out what I’d write for my final post before Good Friday. I’d settled on the subject of grace and begun mapping it out in my mind. But things have changed. Grace will enter in, but not in the way I had imagined. The grace I will write about is much more real than anything I might have been able to recall just hours ago.
I have many thoughts racing through my head.
The first is what a privilege it is to spend time with the dying. There is no place I’d rather be tonight than near Ryan as he prepares to move into the hereafter. This isn’t to say I’m happy with this turn of events; not at all. But I’ve been here before. I’ve sat with other dear ones in their final days and I count those moments as among the most profound of my life. Think about it: Ryan soon will be where all faithful aspire to go. He’s beaten us to the punch. Soon he will know all and be transformed from mere mortal to eternal being. There will be no more cancer, no more questions, only Love.
The veil that separates this world from the next has become thinner in our corner of the world. For Ryan, there is no turning back. For the rest of us, it is an opportunity to grieve, and learn. Ryan is presenting a gift to us now, helping us glimpse one more piece of the puzzle of life and focus on what we need to do to prepare ourselves for the next phase of our journey.
Ryan seems prepared. He has had the chance to experience an amazing outpouring of love of family and community over the last months. He has leaned hard on his faith to make sense of why he must go now, of all times, when his wife and children seem in such need of his fatherly strength. Listening to Lori’s updates over the past months has been an incredible experience and a beautiful lesson in the amazing power of grace.
Grace is obviously what is carrying her now and why, earlier today, as Ryan’s co-worker said goodbye, it was Lori who offered her comfort.
Grace carries us when we cannot carry ourselves. It is God’s breath of life infused into us to keep us moving through situations that otherwise would prove impossible.
Today during my faith-sharing group meeting, we discussed Jesus’ death. I talked about how, when my friend Laura was dying, my beliefs suddenly became so much more urgent. More than ever, I realized, I needed to count on everything I had believed all the years leading up to her dying as being unequivocally true. I could not face the possibility that we, the faithful, might be wrong about life after death, for that would mean darkness for Laura and the rest of us. I could not accept that possibility.
When it counts most, do I believe? Or does faith fall flat on its face? There’s no hemming and hawing now. It’s one or the other: death or life. Which will it be?
I’ve been given the gift of faith, and despite fleeting doubts, I always come back to life and light. But what of those who have not accepted or been offered this same gift? How do they cope with and make sense of death? Is it possible to truly settle on this life being all there is?
The curtain falls, and there is no encore. Everything grows still, and then…nothing.
No. No! This is not what I know; not just what I believe to be true but what I KNOW to be true. There is an encore, and it is not finite. It is LOVE and LIFE and LIGHT eternal.
Tonight, I will share sacred space with a friend who is almost there. It is a privilege, though I know I will weep. And yes, I’m a little scared to face what I’m about to face. Being with the dying is an overwhelming experience. I don’t take this lightly at all. But I’m convinced Ryan has something more to teach me, and I’m open to learning whatever it is.
And if, in return, I can say one thing, whisper one prayer, that will help him successfully cross over, I know I will be meeting up with grace once again.