On Thursday afternoon at 3:30 in a small hospital room in the Bronx, I opened my Prayer Book and prayed “Ministration at the Time of Death.” It broke my heart to turn to page 462. But Gay was dying before our eyes, and now was the Time.
On Wednesday afternoon—just the day before—I had sat in this room and talked for a half-hour with Gay. We shared communion. I had never seen anyone so eager to receive a pinch of bread and a drop of wine. We didn’t know it in the moment, but it was her viaticum, literally “traveling provisions,” the final communion given to the dying. Not knowing this, I said, “You’re tired. We won’t talk any longer now. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
By tomorrow Gay had broken her moorings and begun drifting out on the great sea. We could not talk. That’s when I prayed. A few hours later, at 11:00 PM, she died.
The death of so vibrant a forty-nine year-young mother of three is too much. That prayer echoes in my head, “O God, whose days are without end, and whose mercies cannot be numbered: make us, we pray, deeply aware of the shortness and uncertainty of human life . . . ” How could it all end so soon, so short of the three-score-and-ten we expect, almost demand?
Always at this moment I turn to Thornton Wilder, and that scene from Our Town. After Emily dies in childbirth at age 26, she asks the Stage Manager narrating the play if she can return home for one last visit. Reluctantly, he agrees, but urges her to choose the least important day of her life—for the simplest moment will be highly charged. Emily chooses her 12th birthday. She walks down the hill from the cemetery, into Grover’s Corners and into her house where, to her dismay, she finds her father distracted by his business and her mother absorbed in everyday household tasks. Emily exclaims, “Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, 14 years have gone by. I’m dead!” But no one hears. Her mother asks what she wants in her lunch bag for school.
Finally Emily breaks down in sobs. “We don’t have time to look at one another . . . . Oh earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every day?”
There is no other response to the fear, the terror and loss we feel when death comes before we ever expected it: we must live, now. Look at one another. See.
How are you going to do that today? (I’d like to know.)