Mark Miller, C.Ss.R. Ph.D.
Last summer I had my first truly intimate experience of death and dying. Not mine, of course! One of our old and dear Redemptorist brothers began to go downhill rather rapidly and on November 30th Brother Leo returned to his Maker. This is the first community I had lived in where a member had died.
Bro. Leo was more than just a member of our community, however. Our lives had been closely intertwined for almost 20 years, most of which we shared under the same roof. We each had our separate apostolic work, but our community life made us like members of one family. Although Bro. Leo was over 40 years older than myself, we shared an enthusiasm for the Lord’s word and work as Redemptorist confreres. He was a hugely gregarious and outspoken man whose presence was always felt in the community. He had a deep and simple faith, a wonderful (and loud!) sense of humour, and a zest for life which would have shamed people six decades younger than he.
He was also afraid of getting old and “useless.” And he was afraid of death. Many times we Redemptorists had discussed what it would be like if and when the day came for Bro. Leo to go into a nursing home.
In August of 1994, after a series of hip and back operations, Bro. Leo had to go into the hospital because of continual pain and a general debilitation. Medications often left him confused. Soon it became distressingly obvious that he would not likely come home again; perhaps he would never be able to walk again, even with a walker. He spent three months in hospital before he died. During his lucid times he displayed the gamut of emotions: depression, weariness, fear, and boredom, on the one hand, and occasional joy, sharp wit, profound trust and faith, gratitude at a visit, and comfort at a touch or stroke, on the other. In the midst of this time, he often said to me (and others) “I just want to die.” In many ways it was not an easy death (although, looking back, I confess that we did not know he was dying). And I felt quite helpless responding to him in words, even words of faith and hope: “Leo, when the Lord is ready to call you…the Lord knows the right time.”
Reflecting back on Bro. Leo’s dying, a number of remarkable things happened. These were not events to make his dying a wonderful, exciting event. They were more like hidden jewels glimpsed only upon a kind of contemplative review of what happened during those three months. Each of these (and they are not all!) deserves comment, but I will simply present them in the same reflective mode that they came to me.
First, Bro. Leo surprised me one day when he told me that he was no longer afraid of death. With a look approaching awe on his face he said to me, “I’ve told people all my life that God loves them; now as I get closer I am beginning to trust that love.” Knowing Bro. Leo as I did, this was a major step for him.
Second, at his funeral I spoke with a number of other Redemptorists and we all seemed to awaken to the same realization—Bro. Leo, who had been fiercely independent all his life, had allowed us to care for him. That may not sound like much, but many people want to hang on to their independence above all else. Bro. Leo did not become bitter at his loss of ability; rather he seemed to appreciate that we were there for him. We, on the other hand, discovered how much we loved him precisely in our care for him.
Third, Bro. Leo taught me something about weakness and the Cross. As his physical strength diminished, there was more and more that I and others were able do for him. He courageously continued to do all he could; but where he was weak, we would be his arms and his strength. Moreover, when he was in pain or overwhelmed by the burdens of his condition, he knew he was not alone. I know he knew he was loved. No clearer image of Jesus on the Cross—loved, hopeful and trusting in the midst of pain—has ever been before my eyes.
Fourth, priests and brothers in a religious order seldom go around talking about their love for each other. In fact, I have seen a number of priests who have wondered if their confreres really cared for them because the words were never spoken. Being so intimately involved with Bro. Leo as he grew weaker revealed clearly to me how connected we were and had been for years. We belonged to each other. We cared for each other. That is our love. And what a precious gift it is.
Fifth, Bro. Leo shared his dying with us. I don’t know how much I really learned and probably won’t know until it is my turn to die. Nonetheless, I am less fearful of death, less concerned about whether I will be cared for, and much less willing to avoid all thoughts of death. Dying is part of living. And when my turn comes, I trust that Bro. Leo will have already made it easier for me.
Finally, in his dying Bro. Leo brought many of his Redemptorist confreres closer together. There were times when we chatted outside his room while he slept, times when we all talked with him and held his hand, times when we talked about his condition and how best to serve him. In our care for him there was revealed to us our care for each other. That is a valuable lesson for men who do not marry.
We often wonder what the point of a prolonged dying is for the patient. While that is part of God’s mysterious plans for each individual (and there is often much good that God accomplishes during that time), we must not forget that dying can be shared like any other part of living. Those of us who care for the dying person must be aware of how easy it is to distance ourselves from death—and therefore from the dying person—if we think that we are there only to give and not to receive. Dying may look like the most isolated part of human existence. It is not. It is a time to share our mortality. The gifts that the dying share with those left behind, from facing the fear to allowing oneself to be loved in utter weakness, are precious beyond words in a society that often forgets how much we are parts of one another through our love.