Many years ago I was with my mother-in-law in her kitchen as she was eating a midnight snack when one of her daughters came in and scolded her, (there is an old wives tale that if you eat a lot before bedtime, you’ll die in your sleep). She responded quite candidly that if she did then she would ‘wake up in the arms of Jesus’ and then filled the room with her laughter as she always did.
In that moment, although rather amazed at her confidence, I felt that it was probably true in her case, and a couple of seconds later contemplated my own chances; an unfriendly encounter with a pitchfork seemed more likely at that time.
We seldom think of death, at least not in the right way. Outside of the medical profession people rarely see it up close which adds to its mystery.
I heard once that we manufacture many of our crosses in life in our own hearts; I think there is an awful truth in that and it seems to me that the manner of our death is also by design, sometimes by our choices in lifestyle but also a heavenly purpose too.
As a boy I always imagined dying gloriously in battle, pierced through the heart by a sword or riddled with bullets in a noble cause. Every afternoon the living rooms and backyards of our neighbourhood were littered with corpses, and whilst immortality was frowned upon, we believed in the resurrection, a few seconds on the floor and we were up and back in the fray.
In my mother-in-law’s case I have seen her gradually lose her strength; in the last 5 years she has dispensed with her walking frame in favour of the wheelchair, then to the confines of the bedroom. The laughter that filled her house has stopped now as has her voice entirely, she can no longer stand or move, she has to be fed and changed. After the anointing of the sick she now mostly sleeps, opening her eyelids is a rare occurrence and seems to take all her strength.
Her service is almost over. She has had a beautiful life though; she made it so by being that. A wife and mother, primary school teacher, but mostly remembered for her charity and kindness to others. She always visited anyone in the neighbourhood who was sick, armed with soup, bananas and money, and her daughter in tow to lead the prayers for healing.
As I watch I sense that these last years have not been cruel, but rather just the completion of a process started long ago; one that she has cooperated with and even now in submission to losing every faculty and ounce of strength and becoming utterly dependent, as she gives up her life in order to receive it again. I hope that the flames of purgatory will not need to touch her; perhaps her spirit will soar like a cool breeze as she passes through there and ‘wakes up in the arms of Jesus’.
It doesn’t look glorious, but it is.