In Paradisum

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Sitting close in her Hospice room, I held her limp hand in mine. I sought her mostly-closed eyes. Her frail, cancer-wracked body lay still, her voice limited to a few trailing whispers. I turned and looked out the large bay window hoping to catch some meaning to all this, finding only deepening sadness. Never had I been present to anyone lingering so long this side of death; never before had I faced an end with such a young mother.

It seemed just a few years ago that she was that vibrant teenager, the lively Sunday school student of mine, cheerfully questioning, always a joy to teach. She belonged to an amazing, big Italian-American family that only a couple of years ago had lost their eldest son. Now they were being called to say goodbye to their second child, their first girl, their Annmarie. No reason could explain it.

Relatives and friends flew in by the droves. Hugs, handshakes, intimate conversations abounded, life’s deepest mystery hovering wordlessly under our embraces. I marveled at her engineer father’s solid faith as he confronted head-on this most perplexing reality. “My daughter is completing her work here on Earth.” It called to mind a poignant letter the spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, sent to a family whose young daughter had been murdered, where he postulated that when we go, no matter how, we have completed our calling. Could I believe it? 

The reality of death continues to baffle me, although as a young nun, I was often turned toward death’s face. We were shrouded in yards of black serge. Daily we prayed the Divine Office that spoke of life’s end. Not infrequently, we sat silently all night in chapel near an open casket, sometimes moving to stand over the nun’s body confronting our own mortality. Yet, the next morning we’d joyously intone the Gregorian hymn, “In Paradisum,” as the body was wheeled out. May angels escort you into Paradise.
After visiting Annmarie, we lolled the next morning at our motel under a magnificent south Florida sun, balmy breezes rustling my book’s pages. I looked up at a giant Washingtonian palm standing rock still while huge fronds played about each other, obeying nature’s irresistible choreography. Brown fronds hanging down danced too, though they were completely spent and wrinkled and obviously dead. The metaphor wasn’t lost on me as I tried to probe the lesson to its depths. 

At some point, I took liberty with what I thought Annmarie might be lovingly dictating as she moved into the unknown …

“Mom and Dad, cry, but not too much. I’m proud of my accomplishments, my marriage, my two beautiful sons. I’m proud of you, the cruise celebrating your fiftieth anniversary. I’m ready to go. Oh, I’m missing you already. Yes, Dad you were right. I say with deep satisfaction that I’ve led a full and rich life.”

Only a few weeks after we were back, I received the email I’d been dreading. Death had released Annmarie on April 26 at 4:56 a.m. Tears took over. I rushed to share the news with Jim, but stood transfixed at the door to his studio. For, on his radio, loud and clear, had burst the chorus of Gabriel Fauré’s hymn, “In Paradisum.” I stood overwhelmed as Jim and I hugged. The tears flowed warmly as the soaring words and music flooded my heart. 

Death, at least for that moment, had suddenly become beautiful.


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