It seems I’ve dreaded my parents’ death my whole life. When my mother’s finally came, in June, it wasn’t the sadness that predominated. Rather it was what the world tried to deny her—and what God offered her—that became the story. And it is the same story for all of us who must hazard the culture of death on our way to eternal life.
Life doesn’t get any more real than a deathbed. In the week between my mother’s final stroke and her last breath, I recalled a parade of fears we’d each experienced on the other’s behalf that had never materialized.
A worrywart who had played out a million nightmare scenarios in her mind, Mom had not witnessed any of them happen to anyone in our family. She was suffering now, indeed, but this was the final struggle, and there was no doubting that it was helping her toward heaven.
The sins of her life were not, finally, going to result in eternal damnation, the ultimate fear. She had kept the faith her entire life. She had instilled it in her three children. Her youngest daughter, my sister, had taken care of her during her final two years, when she suffered from Alzheimer’s and a first debilitating stroke that left her half paralyzed.
My sister, Celine, had been insistent that our mom not go into a nursing home, and she had prepared her daily for death, saying the rosary and other prayers with her at set times of the day, keeping holy images in front of her eyes and the TV out of her room. My sister prayed to their guardian angels each timeshe had to hoist my mother out of bed and into her wheelchair and back, and while other objects were heavy to her, my mother never was. The angels even caught them once when they began to fall.
Celine prayed the Hail Mary all the while she bathed our mother, protecting her modesty. When Mom didn’t want to drink her unpleasant thickened water, Celine told her to offer it up, and she would drink. Mom talked only rarely, and then usually in a garble, but occasionally she would blurt out, clear as day, “O Sacrament most holy, O Sacrament divine, all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment Thine.” The poignancy made me cry.
In my mother’s last week of life, I did not see her fears realized, but rather her lifetime of faithfulness and the hidden two years of my sister’s care for her rewarded by God.
Her pastor was there every step of the way, imparting the last rites, praying the rosary with us, advising us of what to say to Mom: Jesus and Mary are waiting for you, Jesus loves you, go to Jesus. On the last morning of her life, Father offered Mass at her bedside. Then he led us in the Litany of the Dying, when Mom’s breath matched the cadence of the litany, and the rosary, when her breathing slowed perceptibly.
Perhaps most vital, the priest had imparted to our mother the Apostolic Pardon, an indulgence par excellence that has become little known among the faithful and even some of the clergy.
The pardon is given at the moment of death, or at the suspicion thereof, and gives to the person who has had a habit of prayer the remission of the temporal punishment that his sins have deserved. Whereas the usual requirements for a plenary indulgence include having no attachment to sin—a pretty tough benchmark for the living—the Apostolic Pardon for the dying requires simply that the person have had a habit of prayer in his life.
Because God wants so much to give from the storehouse of the treasures of the Church, he holds out the Apostolic Pardon to those who die unexpectedly, when a priest is not available. Simply by making the intention to receive the Apostolic Pardon—and by having a practice of prayer—any Catholic may receive the pardon at death.
The Apostolic Pardon was of immense comfort to us, because eternity— everything—is on the line on a deathbed. We were elated with gratitude, the kind that gives you a window into what “eye has not seen,” the thrilling secret that suddenly makes all of our sufferings understandable, even sought-after. When you see the other side a little, when you sense what all of our other happinesses have hinted at, you are overwhelmed with the lopsided gift, and you want to offer the little that you can in return.
It turned out that God wasn’t done with our fears for our mother. He had another cross for us that would cause us to trust him more.
My mom’s advance directives called for her to receive no extraordinary means for prolonging her life but did stipulate that she be given hydration and nutrition, as the Church teaches we should. We should die of whatever condition is killing us, not of starvation or thirst. After examining her in the emergency room, the att ending physician said Mom would no longer be able to eat or drink on her own, and artifi cial feeding would simply prolong the inevitable. It was a given that she would receive no such food.
Mom’s doctor is a Catholic, and by virtue of that fact and of her wishes, he instructed that she receive a feeding tube through her nose. He said she would be more comfortable receiving food and hydration than not, and this comfort would off set any discomfort from the feeding tube.
We planned to take Mom home to die with the help of hospice care, and the doctor said my sister and I would be able to handle the feeding tube at home.
But the plodding, mysterious workings of hospitals can cause the most incomprehensible of delays. By the time his orders for the feeding tube insertion were to be carried out, Mom’s condition had deteriorated.
The nurse who was to insert the tube tearfully asked us not to go through with it. She said the tube would be painful, and that Mom, under the confusion of Alzheimer’s, wouldn’t understand what was happening to her. She also said Mom probably wouldn’t be able to take in the food anyway, and there would be a danger of aspiration.
In addition, the social worker assigned to Mom’s case told us that the hospice service was refusing to help with the feeding tube once we got Mom home and that we would not be able to take care of it ourselves. When asked about the advance directives, she said they didn’t apply anymore.
The nursing supervisor even got involved, wanting us to know that we didn’t have to do this. A wall of resistance to food and hydration had been built up around my mother, and its impenetrability terrified me.
I also started to doubt. According to the Church, food and hydration do not have to be given to someone who is actively dying. But what did “actively dying” mean? The decision was aimed at a moving target, at a person who was deteriorating, where we couldn’t see black and white.
After studying end-of-life issues for years, I was stunned that a prett y straightforward case like my mother’s had suddenly posed a dilemma.
But there began to be a break in the clouds. First was a bishop’s backing of the good doctor who knew best. Then the social worker found that another hospice service, Catholic Charities’, would help us with the feeding tube at home. And the nursing supervisor brought in an expert in feeding tube insertion to do the procedure.
At 3 pm, the Hour of Mercy, accompanied by our prayers, the tube was placed effortlessly into Mom’s nose. She showed no signs of distress from it. In fact, her color immediately improved, and her breathing became less labored.
My sister and I also found that there was a way to monitor whether Mom was receiving the nutrition. We were to check the residuals periodically, which meant drawing back on a syringe inserted into the feeding tube. If nothing but air entered the syringe, it meant that Mom was taking in the food. If the syringe filled with liquid, it meant she was no longer doing so.
She took in the food for three days after the tube was inserted.
The night before she died, my sister and I awoke every two hours to check the residuals. We had always rejoiced when the syringe came up empty. But this night, when it began to fi ll with fl uid, our hearts sank. At the same time, though, the appearance of the fl uid matched Mom’s more shallow breathing. It was a concrete, measurable sign that she was, now, close to dying.
I was so grateful she had received the hydration and nutrition. I was also distressed that it had been met with such opposition, and that if she had had any less of a doctor, even this good Catholic family could have done the wrong thing. Not wrong from a strictly moral perspective, perhaps, but not what was best for her.
In the end, she died peacefully, surrounded by her family and att ended by a priest. I saw the suff erings we were enduring—and would continue to endure until our own deaths—as the bridge that would lead us to our mother. Nothing had been—and nothing would be—wasted along the way, even our fears. A Father who wants only our salvation and has given his only Son to accomplish it will not disappoint us.
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