Sustained reflection on another’s life

The death of an elder in the family circle pulls us out of our ordinary routines and obligations (including the blogs we write) and forces us into sustained reflection on that person’s life. In this case — my aunt’s death (see previous post) — it was a good experience.

M. Harder burial, Aug. 16, 2010

Not that this reflection was particularly organized as a formal activity, though some parts like the eulogy and service certainly were. Most of it happened in the course of planning, hosting siblings from out of town, and attending the viewing and funeral and burial. The reason we were doing out-of-the-ordinary things such as coming together was (Aunt) Margaret’s end, and so of course we shared round the death stories, and gave voice, for several days in a row, to our memories, questions, even speculations. When a few of us met, ostensibly to work on the eulogy, one cousin did most of the work (you can’t really write by committee) while the rest of us combed our late aunt’s photo albums and swapped stories the pictures provoked. On Sunday, with siblings and my mother gathered at our house, we pressed Mom for opinions about her late sister (and also her living ones), and we paged through some diaries Margaret left behind, reading nuggets aloud to one another. The open mic time at the funeral lunch yielded a further variety of reflection about this one woman’s life.

My brother who emceed that session reminded us that we really don’t know other people very well. It’s true. Even in the case of those we feel we know, the communal sharing and reminiscence that the rituals of death “force” upon us can enlarge and fill in the portrait. It’s an old saw that it’s too bad all this, especially the nice things that are said, happens only after the person dies. Yes, also true, but then again, perhaps because life is multi-faceted and necessarily busy, it’s the only way it really works. Death compresses the exercise of knowing, intensifies the reflection. For one week, it was all about someone else. The stew of things I’ve remembered and heard about my aunt will nourish me now as I pick up my regular routines.


Unexpectedly, yesterday, and for the second time in less than a year, I had the privilege of keeping company at the deathbed of an elderly relative.

My aunt Margaret Harder, 84, was admitted to hospital from the personal care home on Saturday; yesterday morning, tests revealed she had a blood clot in her lungs. Her last years have been a continuing story of failing health and memory, an unhappy story of changes and losses of all kinds, and it was determined that the best course — and the one she wanted — would be to respond with palliative care. She died at just before nine in the evening.

My aunt was a teacher. Once, as a young student, her hair got caught in the teacher’s jacket button when he bent to look at her work. Was he cross? At any rate, he frightened her, and Margaret decided then that when she was a teacher, no student would ever be afraid of her. I’m sure no student ever was. She was not without authority, but above all, there was gentleness in her. She also lavished on us, her nieces and nephews, and our children in turn, great kindness and generosity.

For many years, my aunt taught special needs students — those with physical challenges like muscular dystrophy and cerebral palsy. Yesterday afternoon, George, one of her former students with whom she remained in contact, came to the hospital. It was moving to watch him express his gratitude and affection for her and to see her lift her hand to his, the only time in the day that she made a gesture of this kind. He held her hand a long time.

During my aunt’s last hours, I couldn’t help but think of the next-to-final scene in Pilgrim’s Progress, where Christian and Hopeful must cross a cold, rushing river to reach the Celestial City. Margaret was not in pain, nor did she seem uncomfortable, but my, what a great deal of hard work it was to get across that last cold river! Yet she seemed to understand what it was for, and where she was going, and as far as we could tell, she was not afraid. And she got there, finally, resolute and well.

I thank God for the life and death of my aunt Margaret Harder.

By what kind of death

The lectionary Gospel reading a couple of Sundays ago — for the Sunday I was to lead worship — was John 21, about Jesus’ appearance to his disciples on the beach at the Sea of Tiberias. I’ve always loved this story, with its many sensory details, fascinating dialogue, and even bits of comedy. And, of course, the notion of breakfast with the risen Lord.  So, in preparing for the Sunday ahead, I was enjoying this text, from the fishing scenes through the meal through the three-time “Do you love me” question to Peter and on into 

Truly, truly, I say to you,
when you were younger,
you used to gird yourself,
and walk wherever you wished;
but when you grow old,
you will stretch out your hands,
and somebody else will gird you,
and bring you where you do not wish to go.

And continuing on to

Now this he said, signifying by what kind of death he would glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he said to him, “Follow me.”

Which brought me up short.

First of all, what’s this talk about death, when this is a story of resurrection? Everything here, from a net teeming with fish to the aroma of a charcoal fire, brims with life. Miracles and love are once again in full display, and now this reminder (for them, and us) of dying?

But also: by what kind of death he would glorify God? Tradition says Peter also died by crucifixion, and commentators link Jesus’ proverb-like description to that. (I also see, for the first time, via a commentator’s note, a reason for the detail earlier in the story about Peter pulling on his outer garment and jumping into the water to stride to shore — an indication that he was still a man quite capable of dressing himself, and a man who walked where he wished.)

But whatever it meant for Peter, the description sounds much too much like my father’s death, like his last years, that once strong and independent man now reduced to the most adject helplessness, being taken everyday where he wished not to go. It also sounds like the place a favourite aunt has reached, dependent in a hospital bed and her once gentle personality drastically altered.

This kind of dying doesn’t connect for me — not logically at least — with “glorify God.” Dad’s moment of death had beauty, yes, and relief, but what about the years of dying before it, locked away from us and from his own memories, in some prison we couldn’t penetrate, which seemed to give no glory at all, not to himself or his Creator?

And yet these words jumped out at me, and I knew if a demeaning death and giving glory to God were combined here for Peter, that somehow the combination could be seized, and trusted, for my father’s death, and my unknown one as well. I’ve asked God, I’ll confess, for certain privileges, like a clear mind to the end, and a ripe old age, but not too ripe, though long enough to finish up all my projects, of course, and it would also be nice to have enough notice to get my house in order (six weeks?), and a scene out of one of those pious old novels would be a bonus — you know the one with the family round the bedside, sweet final blessings, and songs… Who wants to be killed by a bus, or transition through the long bleak tunnel of Alzheimer’s?

No one. But we don’t get to choose, and until it’s indicated by what kind of death we will glorify God, we’ve got this, an invitation to whatever it may be: “Follow me.”