I have a date tonight. I have a date and am on my way. I am showered. I am shaven. I smell good—well, like soap, actually. I smell like soap. I am between the front door and the car, paused, momentarily, gazing at the astonishing wasp that is digging itself a home in my front lawn, prairie-dog style—complete with a substantial pile of excavated dirt—when my cell phone rattles in my pocket: “My mom’s going.” This is the last thing I want to hear right now, and not just because I don’t want her mom to be going. A big sigh, a questioning of vocational identity, a wondering what it would be like to have weekends off, to be rich and idle, to not have a cell phone—it all flashes very fast. “I’ll be right there.” I leave my wasp to its excavation and my date, after a quick, apologetic phone call, aborted. Back inside, I change into clerical black.
This clothing, this changing of the clothes, is not at all like Superman. Not that anyone would make such an association, but let me just say it: I can’t fly. Gravity and the second law of thermodynamics regularly have their way with me. I change into clerical garb because that is what is expected, and that’s fine. The collar will identify me and make my presence in N.’s home intelligible among people I have not met before, granting context. “The pastor’s here.” I get in my 1992 Honda Civic and go.
N. had lost a huge amount of weight in the three or so months she had been sick with cancer. When I saw her a week and a half ago I knew it wouldn’t be long. I had left my cell phone number with her daughter. “Keep me posted. Call me anytime.”
The front door to the three-story walkup is oddly hanging open and I make my way up to the apartment I had visited once before. A son, a daughter, several friends are gathered in the brightly lit bedroom, a plaster crack running like a lightening bolt across the wall above the bed. N.’s jaw hangs slack. I think she might be already dead, but then see the labored gasp, the faint, slow tick of a pulse visible in the neck.
“We’re gathered here to pray with you, N.,” I say close to her ear. Her tongue lay heavy against the back of her mouth. I flip through my book to find the “Commendation of the Dying” rite. That is why we are gathered. It had been a while—more than a year, in fact—since I’d had a funeral, and more since I’d been at the bedside of one about to die. I feel too distant from her while standing and lower to one knee. “Almighty God, look on N., whom you made your child in Baptism . . . ” This is what we pray as death’s clouds gather and descend. I wonder what, if, she can hear. Somehow, it seems like she can, her throat seeming to seize slightly (an attempt at speaking?) when I say her name. What, where, is consciousness as it begins to flicker and fade? Is N. there—her consciousness, I mean—to attach herself to the name I speak, in prayer, into the air between us? Is she, too, praying? I imagine the experience of being spoken to while in a deep sleep, the voice distant, through a fog. As she gasps, I recall my own incipient sleep apnea, the terrible drowning feeling of not being able to inhale. “Lord, have mercy.” “Lord, have mercy,” everyone responds instinctively. “Christ, have mercy.” “Christ, have mercy.” Lord, have mercy.” “Lord, have mercy.”
We pray the Lord’s Prayer. The pauses between breaths grow longer—ten seconds, maybe more—a slow pulse still visible in the hollow above the clavicle. I turn the page of my book. When a life support system is withdrawn—no, not that. Why hadn’t I gathered myself before walking in? At the time of death—OK. “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend you servant . . .” The great ecumenical prayer of commendation. I don’t know its provenance, probably ancient. It is the world waving good bye. I wonder what it’s like to hear that prayed over you.
I have never heard a “death rattle” before, but I know exactly what the sudden gasp and sputter is midway through the commendation. She has one more breath after that. Then she is done. “Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.” The prayer ends. That is it. “May N., and all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.”
Her daughter closes her vacant eyes and rests a rolled up towel under her jaw to keep it from hanging open. We stand in silence. I begin to read the twenty-third Psalm, the entire room joining in, then stumbling where my translation differs from the King James that everyone seems to know by heart, but it doesn’t matter. That psalm seems virtually umbilical at these times. More silence. Hushed conversation. More silence. I feel awkward, a little unsure as to how to proceed. Always on guard against religious platitude, I begin to feel the insidious pull toward the saccharine. I say that it was a peaceful death, and what a blessing that is. I say that it is wonderful that we can all be gathered with N. in her last moments, that we could together commend her to God. I feel like I should say something else, something more tough-minded and generous and wise, but that is what I say. The exigencies of death are already in motion. There will be plans to make, and many phone calls, including to family members in England, Canada, Barbados. I offer a final round of condolences and soft handshakes. We will be in touch tomorrow about arrangements for the funeral and whatever else. “You have my cell.” I find my way down the stairs, through the door—still hanging open.