“May angels guide you and bring you into paradise: and may all the martyrs come forth to welcome you home; and may they lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem. May the angel chorus sing to welcome you, and like Lazarus, forgotten and poor, you shall have everlasting rest. “ [ “In Paradisum,” a Latin prayer for the deceased.]
A friend had invited me to visit his dying 76-year-old mother. The invitation was gently made. Her Spanish had always been difficult to follow., but I met her frequently. She was a familiar presence at Church services, and I knew that the family made do with very little. Putting down the phone, I said a quick prayer for her and I put the matter out of mind.
But there was another phone call: another invitation to visit the dying woman. She had been moved from the hospital to a nursing home. She is failing every day “poco a poco” — little by little — he explained. In Mexican culture, requests are subtle, understated – but serious. So after Sunday Mass, Alice and I went to the nursing home.
Before reaching the door of her room we had been introduced to a nephew and his wife. “Several cousins are flying in today,” he said, “one from Chicago.” In the room her husband, surrounded by other relatives, stood to greet us. More quiet introductions. Chairs were cleared of purses and coats so that we could sit and view the mother.
In modern life, deathbed experiences are increasingly rare. The dying, heavily sedated, often pass their final days in a world of gray-white respirators and monitors. There is no sense of journey or accompaniment.
The family, it appeared, was there for the duration. Her husband, son and daughter, had not left Lenora’s side for the past three days and others continued to arrive. She was comatose, her eyes closed, head back, and her face ashen. She clutched her rosary tightly in her hand. “She won’t let go of it,” her husband, explained.
There was an order to things. The men sat and looked on. The older women worked over the body of the dying person, holding her hand, swabbing her mouth, wiping her brown. Younger women observed, aware that in the future, they would inherit this role. When a nurses aide came in to take her vital signs, each of these was carefully related in Spanish by an elder daughter: pulse, temperatures, breath rate.
Her husband asked if I would lead the rosary and we prayed together. In English and Spanish together, again and again we asked the Virgin Mary to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” Life was moving into death. It was all of a piece. As we prayed a woman in heavy motorized wheel chair was brought into the room, and two women helped her to hold the dying woman’s hand.
The mood in the room was somber but resigned. The priest had come and offered prayers that evoked a family gathering at the journey’s end: “Go forth, faithful Christian. May you live in peace this day, May your home be with God in Zion, with Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, with Joseph, and all the Angels and Saints.”
I had very little knowledge of Lenora. Until that day, I knew her only as ”mamá” –“mother.” She was born in 1940 in the dusty central Mexican town El Cargadero, population 500. Though we seldom spoke, there was never a language barrier. Whenever I would see her at Church, or accompanying her husband and son, to a function of the Knights of Columbus, she was always welcoming. Though her memory had failed her in recent years, she never lost her beautiful smile.
She died early the next morning, surrounded by her family. They remained with her for the eight hours of the mortuary viewing the next day. At the funeral Mass, celebrated by two priests and a larger congregation the celebrant continued to walk with her: “Grant that your servant you have called to journey to you,” the celebrant prayed, “may be led to the true homeland to delight in its everlasting joys.”
She had always liked the plumes and capes of the Knights of Columbus. A Color Corps accompanied her coffin from the Church.
At the end of Mass, a long line of cars queued up to accompanying the hearse to the cemetery. Here with the prayers of the Church, Lenora’s family and friends laid her to rest and said their final “vaya con Dios.”. They had brought her home.