One of my friends died this week after a months-long fight with cancer. He was an extraordinary guy, a real clown. I mean a REAL real clown: a professional gag-master who worked in and with circuses all his life, one of those people who has made the world a much better, happier place, but I’m not going to eulogize him here. His passing has put me in mind once again of the subject of Death itself, something most of us try to avoid thinking about too much.
Death is unsettling at best. It shakes you up. It makes you lose your footing in your day-to-day trudge through the world. It breeds disquiet and despair. Coming to terms with it is something we have to do if we’re going to live. In my book I devote a chapter to the “Sacrament of Death” and a model for what I meant could be found in the passing of my friend.
To illustrate, I’m sorely tempted to share his wife’s searing descriptions of their last weeks together. Some things, however, are too personal. In the selfie era where we want to make sure everyone knows everything about us all the time, it’s important to carve out some sacred space where only friends and family are allowed in, and you can’t help feeling that her writings on Facebook and CaringBridge are only for those who knew him.
But as we read about his final days, it was evident that these were holy moments that brought the family members into a closer circle, doing their best to maintain their usual good humor amid the frightening approach of the inevitable. Tending the needs of those who are dying is a sacred trust. We need each other so profoundly in those moments. It’s exhausting, it’s discouraging, it’s fulfilling, it’s transcendent. This particular path to the other side—the slow approach, without too much pain, is a great blessing in many ways. As my wife’s uncle put it the week before his passing, “I’m coming in for a nice soft landing.” There is an opportunity for a great deal of reflection and connection, if you open up and allow it to happen. It’s one of those times we feel most vulnerable, most generous, most human.
Let me also once again sing the praises of the good people of Hospice. We need them so badly at this time in our lives and there they are, giving so much of themselves. There was also the benefit of another friend who is a death midwife, or as she prefers to call herself, a spiritual midwife. This much-needed service is a godsend at a time when most of us are an emotional wreck. It’s an inestimable boon to have on hand a caring, competent professional who knows what to do every step of the way to the frontier. There was no need to call any doctors at the end, no 911, no hospital. He slipped away day by day in the comfort of his home, surrounded by those who cared most about him.
They have chosen a three-day vigil in the home with calling hours for friends. His spirit has flown, his body lies in a homemade casket encircled by photos, posters of his circus days–and love. Today, after a brief home funeral, the casket will be taken to the crematorium as our local band plays “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Vaya con Dios.