However, the death I witnessed that I remember most happened before I was ordained. I was 20 years old, and working as a nurse’s aide in an Alzheimer’s Care Center near my hometown in Maine. While the population in the facility in which I worked was quite elderly, there were very few deaths there, as Maine law required the residents of such facilities to be moved to nursing care when the progressed to the stage of the disease where they had to be fed by hand. In fact, during the 4 summers that I worked in this facility, only one death occurred, the death of Anna.
And then one day she stopped. She wouldn’t get up out of her chair. She couldn’t get up out of her chair. We knew something was wrong. The nurse called the doctor. The doctor called her family. The had a conference. It was the doctor’s opinion that she had had a heart attack and would only last a few more days. The family decided to call in hospice so that she could spend her final days with as much peace as possible.
One day past, two days, a week, 9 weeks. Anna was still alive. My summer work ended. I went back to my college in Pennsylvania. When I returned to the facility to work over my Christmas break, I did not expect to see Anna. But when I walked through the doors, there she was, sitting like the Queen of England in a reclining chair, with her feet propped up, and a blanked tucked around her. She couldn’t walk, but she was pointing and gibbering at everyone who walked by her. She was still very busy. She was still very feisty. She was still in charge. Death might have thought it was coming for Anna, but Anna had other plans.
But of course death cannot be put off forever. A week before I was due to return to college from my holiday break, Anna took a turn for the worse. I was working the night shift when we first noticed her decline. She was having great difficulty breathing. We got her into her bed. She didn’t fight at all. We called the doctor. He once again declared, “She only has a few hours. A day at most.” We called her family. They rushed to her bedside. But again, Anna wasn’t one to give up a fight easily.
She lived for 7 more days. She fought for every breath. Sometimes it is hard to die. Anna wasn’t going to give up on life until death tore her from it. Finally on my last evening there she died. I was in the room with her. Her family had gone home. They had tired of predicting when her end would come. They were tired period. The staff took turns sitting with her. It was during my one hour shift with her that she finally let go. I will always remember that moment. One second she was alive, and the next second she was gone. For Anna, the journey to her death was a difficult one. She was committed to her life, and death was going to have to pry her from this life.
I think most of us can understand her fight to live. Throughout our lives we fight to live. We work to keep ourselves safe and from harm. We go to the doctor when we are sick. We try not take unnecessary risks. Life is not something any of us want to let go of easily. Anna’s struggle makes sense. I think that is why it is so hard to understand Jesus’ death. There are so many things he could have done to prevent it. He could have run to the hills for a little while and let the anger of the authorities cool down a little. He could have asked his followers to defend him. He could have given Pilate the answers that would have freed him. But Jesus does none of these things. And in the end he does not even fight as he hangs from the cross. Instead, at the moment of his death, he simply says, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
We too have no guarantee that anything good will come of our deaths. As far as we can see, from our limited perspective, death is it. Death is the end. We haven’t seen what is on the other side. And God, in Jesus, knows what this feels like. God understands Anna and God understands you and me.
Let us pray:
We fear death,
You embraced it.
We fear and crave intimacy in equal measure,
You make it possible.
We fear commitment,
You commit again and again.
Christ make our flesh your home, our hands your hands.
Our faltering love the starting point for your unwavering passion.
That our starving spirits might be renewed.
That the world might change, if only a little.
Even as we hesitate, hear us say:
Christ, into your hands we commit our spirits. *
* A prayer written by David McNeish.