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Something worth striving for: our final journey

Joyce Shutt
Fairfield Mennonite Church

(4/1) Both of my sisters chose to share their last journey in life with me. My older sister entered Hospice care in our home. I made several long trips to Indiana when my younger sister was sent home to die.

My father was fascinated with customs surrounding death. He read books about near death experiences. He scoured the Scriptures for references of what comes "after." Dad saw humor in the whole dying business. He kept us laughing with the information he'd gather. He found a company that made furniture that doubled as a coffin: a solid oak wine chest, a walnut coffee table, a cherry corner cupboard.

As a family we debated the virtues of cremation over embalming. Funerals versus memorial services. Dad arranged for representatives of funeral homes to talk to our church. Both parents made pre-arrangements with the funeral home. Both put their wishes in writing, so when they died we knew what to do.

My father's fascination with death helped prepare me for pastoral ministry. Walking with families before and after death is one of the important jobs of a pastor.

Several shared death experiences stand out. The most meaningful was when my parishioner, who suffered excruciating pain, broke out in a beatific smile, lifted her arms as if to embrace someone, then slowly stopped breathing. Even more amazing was the incredible sense of "a presence" that stayed in that room with us for over an hour. Another time my friend looked in my eyes and simply stopped seeing.

One of the "spookier" experiences was when I was sitting with a dying parishioner. Suddenly her husband grabbed me. "Look," he gasped, "there she goes! I think she's waving to us!" Literally, we could almost see her spirit leave the room.

Everyone's favorite death story at the Fairfield Mennonite Church, however, is the time I fell into a grave. It happened early in my ministry when there was still a great flap about ordaining women. It was March and it had rained for weeks. As I began the graveside service , the ground collapsed under me and I slid into the grave. Calmly, the mortician (who looked like someone out of the Adams Family) pulled me out by my coat collar. Covered in red clay, trying to keep a straight face, I conducted the interment service, hearing in my head the words "in the name of the Father, the Son, and into the hole she goes!"

Once home I said to my husband. "You'll never believe what happened to me today. I fell into the grave." He just looked at me, then quipped," well, that should take care of any critics of women's ordination. After all, who can challenge one who has returned from the grave!"

In the "old days" people died at home. Family members bathed and clothed the body, made the casket, dug the grave. They sat with the body. They cooked the food for the funeral meal. These activities gave families tasks to help them process their grief. Today we run from death. Many refuse to even talk about dying. We spend a fortune on vaults and sealed caskets. We pay others to make the deceased look "alive." We go to extreme lengths to prolong life even when it causes intense suffering. Yet death is part of life.

I am so grateful that my sister's doctors took time to talk with us about her options when we learned that her leukemia had advanced. Contrary to what opponents of health care reform tried to call "death panels," getting information about what lies ahead, what could and could not be done was very helpful. Families need to discuss all treatment options from extensive treatment to no treatment at all. Being able to have that discussion was a wonderful gift. Knowing what she was facing gave my sister a chance to get her affairs in order and to go into Hospice. Not only that, but Hospice was able to give her three good quality, pain free months. Up until 3 days before she died she was anticipating going with us to a retreat in the Pokonos.

The first day she entered Hospice care she told me, "when I am bedfast and can't go to the jon myself, I am out of here." The night before she died, she fell trying to get to her potty chair. When I found her, she was kneeling by her bed. Her last words were, "thank you." Within 18 hours she was gone.

While my older sister didn't talk to me about her feelings about dying, she did confide in our pastor. Something of an agnostic, she approached her death with humor and grace. If she was afraid of dying she never talked about it. What she feared was becoming pain riddled and helpless. Hospice kept that from happening.

My younger sister was amazingly articulate about her final journey. Soon after she was released into Hospice care she insisted that she'd been healed. "I'm a six on the Enneagram. Six's are fearful. I've been terrified since getting cancer. My chemo has been excruciating at times. But God answered my prayers. I've been healed of both my fear and my pain."

On those last visits we read together from FINAL GIFTS, a book written by several Hospice nurses. What a wonderful experience for both of us. Periodically, she'd stop me. "Read that again. Oh it's good to know that's a normal part of dying. Oh yes, that's exactly what I've been experiencing."

FINAL GIFTS encourages caregivers to listen carefully for cues their loved ones give them and to trust and honor them. Many dying individuals talk of seeing people who have died, of "unseen" guests," of leaving their body only to return. The authors insist these experiences are very "real" to the dying. Hospice caretakers witness these phenomena over and over again. They insist they are not side effects of morphine or other medications, but real experiences for both believers and nonbelievers.

When my younger sister first entered Hospice care, she complained of "bad dreams that made her afraid to go to sleep." One day she gasped, "Can you see those three men sitting at the foot of my bed?" "How do they make you feel?" I asked. "Good. Peaceful." I smiled. "Your angels have arrived."

She often spoke of someone who stood just behind her left side. Frequently, as we read or talked, she'd smile, and point to her left shoulder. She often spoke of being part of a story. "It's not the same as a dream. It's more like a play that I have a part in. It's hard to describe." Sometimes she'd say. "I don't know where I am supposed to be. It's as if I am caught between two worlds and I don't know where to go." Once she said, "I was going down this long hallway. When I got to the end I couldn't open the door because it had no doorknob. So I came back."

She had a bucket list. She wanted to finish a quilt for her granddaughter. She wanted to teach her husband how to prepare his favorite recipes. She wanted to give her son the recipes for his favorite childhood and comfort foods. She wanted a private conversation with her daughter-in-law. She wanted to see certain people one last time. As she achieved each of these things, she'd say, "Well, now that's in my suitcase."

The evening she said goodbye to her small group, she told them that she'd soon be climbing a high mountain. "But I won’t need any climbing equipment. Someone will take my hand."

The Wednesday before she died, I talked with her husband. She was too weak to stand or sit unassisted on the potty chair. The nurse suggested that it was time to disconnect the oxygen. Her husband began to weep. "I can't do it. It feels as if I am killing her." From the depths of her inner world they heard her say, "pull the plug." What an incredible gift!

Do I still have doubts about what lies after death? Of course. Do I think there is something out there after we die? I certainly hope so. Is God truly a God of unconditional love who does not condemn his broken flawed children to eternal damnation? Oh, please let it be true, for that is the basis on which I have shaped my life and faith. Life is so filled with mystery and unknowns, but miracles happen every day. Scripture promises that love is stronger than hate, stronger than death.

Watching my precious sister waste away, I found myself viewing death more as the "new birth" than an ending. What if our dying is what Jesus meant when he said "you must be born again"? What if this life is the gestation period for the one to come? What if this world is a gigantic womb? At times, I'd look at her and think about how she began as two tiny cells that grew into the person she became, now ready to move down a different birth canal into "new life."

Being with my sisters was like waking from a spell cast by a doubting world. My younger sister especially pointed me toward something beyond, something worth believing in, not as a reward for faith, for going to church or self-denial, but because life is a precious gift and God is love.

So, thank you, precious sisters. Thank you for reminding me that in spite of my doubts, in spite of the fact "that the world is too much with us" there is something more, something better, something worth striving for. Thank you for being there, for sharing your final journey, for being so open and gracious and loving in your unique ways. Thank you for just being you, quiet unassuming messengers of God.

Joyce Shutt is the pastor emeritus of the Fairfield Mennonite Church in Fairfield, Pa.