I recently attended a moving service for a woman I never met. Kathleen ________ was our son-in-law’s grandmother and had resided in a nursing home for the past decade—her memory eroded by age, her body crippled by arthritis.
People who live past 90, especially in a memory-care facility, tend to have small funeral services. Only a handful of friends and family survived Kathleen. Newer friends serving assignments as officers of the nursing home LDS branch conducted the brief service. No members of Kathleen’s immediate family are active LDS.
The branch president offered an opening prayer. A song, “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” was sung and family and friends shared memories of Kathleen. No hymns, no sermon, no speculation about Kathleen’s eternal family reunion, just love—and gratitude that Kathleen had been taken home, wherever that might be, and was free from pain and suffering.
As family members shared memories of the person Kathleen had been—full of life and love and fun—the meaningfulness of her life touched me. Fame and fortune are not requisites for blessing the lives of others. I felt connected to Kathleen—as if I, too, had known her for years and spent time in her home. I felt connected to the branch presidency, their wives, and the Relief Society president—kind-hearted people who leave the comfort of their home wards for two or three years to minister to members in the twilight of life—members with little to give in return except gratitude.
How much God cares about our personal theology, our church attendance or our underwear, I can’t say. But I do believe we occasionally catch glimpses of his love and receive a brief vision of our connection to all his children and to all his creations.
No one wants to die—not even Mormon apostles who are supposed to have a sure knowledge of Christ—and therefore, I presume, of life beyond this world. Yet accounts of at least two apostles facing death describe them pleading with the Lord to preserve their lives—“so they can continue to do the Lord’s work”—an argument I don’t totally buy.
No one wants to die, but who wants to live imprisoned in a body whose only functioning organ is the heart? This week I visited 93-year-old aunt Dolly whose mind is working although her body is confined to bed or wheelchair. Always an independent woman, Aunt Dolly can now barely feed herself. After two years in a care center, her own resources are gone and she’s now on Medicaid, sharing a room with an agitated woman with advanced dementia. “I had considerable savings,” she mourned. “I never thought I’d outlive my money.”
Aunt Loosy is blind and in total dementia following a major stroke last summer. Nothing is left of her old self but her fight and her fears. She grasped my hand, begging me to take her home. “They’re trying to kill me,” she said. “They want my property. If you leave me here, I will die.” She calmed down before I left, but was still looking for her shotgun to use on the care center staff.
Both my aunts live without hope. Medical science can neither restore their health nor prevent their eventual death. Christianity is the religion of hope. Christians pray for miracles—and often expect them as a reward for good deeds. And I can’t help wondering if this hope—this expectation of miracles—makes it harder to accept the inevitability of one’s own death.
A Buddhist sensei spoke about being attracted to Zen because it was the philosophy of no hope. He found peace in acceptance of things the way they are rather than in hoping for a miraculous change. The Buddhist prayers I’ve heard pray for peace and acceptance rather than miracles. Perhaps it is easier to accept the end of life if a person comes from a tradition of surrender rather than a tradition of miracles.
Certainly some Christians attain this total surrender to God’s will—but they have to be pretty saintly—on the order of Mother Teresa. Unfortunately, that’s not an option for me. Nor is enlightenment with my inconsistent mediation practice. Instead of serenely accepting my waning days, I will doubtless huddle on my death bed forcing a prayer through my withered lips—begging for more time. Time to take that cruise to Antarctica. Time to get the last word with my right-wing brother.