The Wonder and the Terror
A wonderful and terrible thing happened all at once late last month. My Aunt Mary Ann died.
Her breathing had a rapid pace when I arrived. It was just her and me, and presumably a host of unseen heavenly beings guarding the holy moment. I sat near her bed and held her hand. She was less than alert.
Her sister Bev (my aunt) arrived next. Soon after my Mom arrived, also Aunt Mary Ann’s sister. The three of us stayed, quietly, with Mary. Minutes lengthen considerably at times like this.
The nurse inquired of those who need to be contacted. The urgency was obvious. Her indication was Mary would die soon. I asked how she knows a dying moment is at hand. What are you looking for?
There is a process called “mottling” that occurs at deaths door. I thought she said “modeling.” This is nothing of the sort though. Blood flow to the appendages wanes as the heart slows down. Lungs can’t take deep breaths so there’s less oxygen to invigorate the blood to move.
Old blood. Bad blood. Barely moving blood.
The body goes cold and dies from the furthest tips in. Aunt Mary Ann was dead from her thighs down already.
My wife and kids stopped by. They filed into the room unawares of what they’d see. Aunt Mary Ann looked as much like herself as I’d ever seen over the course of this cancer trial. Kids are different in uncertain situations. I’m not sure if they are more like themselves or less like themselves. My oldest daughter stood far off near the end of the bed. My youngest daughter was as tender as could be in her hug. My son, our middle kiddo, began to cry. Then Aunt Mary Ann herself shed a tear, a single tear. The kids each told her they loved her. They stayed, quietly, by her side for several minutes.
Finally it was time to leave. Not Aunt Mary Ann yet, but the kids. I walked them out and sent them off. My son was off to a birthday party, a celebration of life lived.
When I returned Aunt Mary Ann’s breathing was noticeably slower; short breaths with long moments between.
I read from Revelation 22 about the river of the water of life, bright as crystal. I read about the throne of God and of the Lamb. I read about the tree of life boasting leaves for the healing of the nations. I read about the face of Jesus and the light that pervades this New Jerusalem. "Behold, I am coming soon!"
It would all be her reality soon enough. Timelessness does not wait on time to begin. It is an eternal now.
Father, receive your servant Mary into your full and glorious presence. These are borrowed breaths. Bring her home. Her wodk is over. Give her rest. Deliver her.
I opened to Psalm 116. Aunt Bev had mentioned a text from that Psalm that was read at Grandpa’s memorial; Mary and Bev and my Mom’s Dad. I began to read. Selected verses that would be meaningful in the moment…
“I love the LORD, because he has heard
my voice and my pleas for mercy.”
“The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.”
“Gracious is the LORD, and righteous;
our God is merciful.”
“For you have delivered my soul death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling;
I will walk before the LORD
in the land of the living.”
At one moment we all stopped. All of us, including Mary.
Was that it?
Was she gone?
Her chest heaved and her neck pulsed. She was still with us. I read on.
She didn’t struggle or thrash about. She was settled with a great measure of peace; of shalom.
Verse 15 and 16 – I changed the pronouns…
“Precious in the sight of the LORD
is the death of his saints.
O LORD, [she is] your servant.
[she is] your servant, the [daughter] of your maidservant.
you have loosed [her] bonds…”
And in that moment, right there, Aunt Mary Ann was gone. Her body was still. My Mom and Aunt Bev and I stayed, quietly, not to miss any movement. There was none. No breath. No pulse. No life. Her spirit loosed from the bonds of life finite, and freed unto life infinite with her Savior Jesus. We three wept. We lost. Aunt Mary Ann won. It was well with her soul.
And that was that.
A mysteriously wonderful moment of life, mashed up with the unique terror of death. But to know the Savior was there! Not manifest in any visible sense but there in strong spiritual sense to receive Aunt Mary Ann into His presence. And I was right there!
Imagine the cosmic presence in the room during those couple hours; timeless eternal beings tapping feet and twiddling thumbs waiting for the hands of time to let go of life. And I was there in this cosmic waiting room. A wonderful and terrible event. A wonderful and terrible honor indeed.
AS WELL, THIS…
It is a wonderful and terrible thing to watch breath stop; life as we know it slip away and real life be awarded. We don’t get to see the hand beyond the curtain between realms take our loved ones gently into a realm that has been present all around and always. Yet burst it does onto our earthly stage with a fresh splendor capable of leveling our senses. And snatch it does from our earthly stage the lively visage of our dearly loved saints. And always with unexpected regularity.
Perhaps you’ve stood backstage or behind a curtain for a much anticipated theater performance. The stage has been set for months. Props and players have been in place and wait around well-rehearsed. The orchestra tunes and adjusts the air in the pit. You can hear every keyed note. There is a hum of excitement beyond the curtain as the audience finds their seats and leans in for the big show.
Then with only the hush of the orchestra as notice, the director or whoever has played the lead in the production of the life lived approaches the curtain from the back. Her hands jostle the curtain back and forth anxious to find the gap in the drawn drape; this way and that. The audience of heavenly beings holds their breath as they notice the curtain swish about. And in a moment of wonder and terror her hand breaks the stage plane of the curtain and she ducks through, appearing on the others side amidst the uproarious applause of so great a cloud of witnesses. And we all are left backstage and behind the curtain imagining the electric scene.