San Antonio in the summer is hot and humid, and Catholic Charities and the St. Vincent de Paul Society collaborate annually on an attempt to procure and distribute approximately six thousand fans for senior citizens. My office is one of the sites that take registrations, so I’ve met a lot of seniors lately. Many of them, especially in the wilting summer heat, have an air of resignation, even melancholy, in talking about this recurrent season in their lives. “Here it is again,” they’ll sigh, heaving their weight onto a little chair in my office positioned directly under the AC.
Friday morning, a woman with bright white hair, magnifying glass spectacles, and a body thin as a reed and bedecked in flamboyantly colored hospital scrubs came in with her taciturn fifty-year-old niece. This octogenarian woman didn’t necessarily fit the “worn out and defeated” stereotype. I wouldn’t say that she was energetic or youthful, but she did have an otherworldly air about her, as though mundane trials could be of little concern to her. It may have been that she was exceptionally hard of hearing and a consummate chatterbox, peppering me with Spanish of which I understood about half. (I gleaned that she was reminiscing about a series of events in Piedras Negras in the 1950’s, just before she came to the United States.) She also had the uncanny habit of fixing her myopic eyes on a point in the distance where the back wall and the ceiling met, as though taking dictation from God. Only briefly would her eyes rest upon me, coming into focus and holding me in a gaze sharp and insistent.
She talked about God, too. A lot. She talked about her various physical ailments, as most of my clients over fifty do when I ask them how they’re doing today, but her self-diagnosis was with constant reference to God: He had ordained her lymphoma, He had made it so that her bones were as brittle as they were, and so that she couldn’t raise her right arm over her shoulder. (She demonstrated this inability for me.) She talked about death: how two days ago the mayor of Piedras Negras had died in a plane crash while surveying the damage caused by the recent flooding of the Rio Grande, and how on her own exodus from Mexico — the only time she’s ever flown on a plane — she feared that she would die, too, because the aircraft had experienced such turbulence. In the face of pain, suffering, and the threat of death, she told me vehemently, it is useless to be afraid. Nothing happens outside of God’s will. Not one sparrow is forgotten by God, she may have been saying. Indeed, the very hairs on our heads are numbered. If it is God’s will that we should die, then we shouldn’t fear, because His will is unquestionable and benevolent, even though mysterious.
After this theatrical lady had made her way slowly out of my office, leaning heavily on her niece’s arm, my Spanish-speaking office assistant filled in the gaps of what I hadn’t understood. As is always the case, the half-understood version is more provocative than the fully understood version. A stream of Spanish in which all you can understand for sure are repetitions of the words for “death,” “God,” “fear,” and “tragedy” seems more prophetic than perhaps it really is. This was the image of the woman I clung to after she’d gone.
I turned my attention to my next client and her five-year-old daughter, who had just come into my office. Not two minutes had gone by when my assistant, seated by the window, gasped — sharp and scary. “Nicholas!” she exclaimed. “Look! It’s that lady!” I got up out of my seat and peered through the window. My stomach turned. Fifty feet away, the woman I’d been speaking to — about death, no less — lay curled up in the fetal position out in the parking lot, only the backs of her multicolored shirt and white-haired head visible (and unmistakable) to me, with a crowd of aghast onlookers gathered around her. Carlos, the maintenance man, was waving one hand to make them keep their distance; in his other hand he pressed his cell phone to his ear. The woman’s niece stared dumbly at her crumpled aunt; another lady, who I later learned had run the woman over in her jeep as she was backing up, paced frenetically back and forth, her trembling visible even at my distance. In the time it took me to bolt up out of my cubicle and join my assistant in the doorway, it seemed to me that a small pool of blood had spread slightly under the felled woman’s body, in the area of her hip.
Sooner or later the ambulance came and took her away, and the police came and made a police report. I don’t know what her fate was. I didn’t go to her because I had clients waiting for me in the office, and there was nothing I could have done to help, except that I wondered whether I should have gone, anyway. It occurred to me that if the woman died, I would have been the last person — well, after her niece — to have had a conversation with her. This thought weighed on me all morning, like a constant pressure against my stomach. I have never seen a death; had I just seen my first? My assistant did go out and join the onlookers, and when she came back she told me that the woman had been conscious, weakly, when they took her away, and that when she fell it had been her wrist and leg that broke her fall, and not her head. These, I think, may be good signs. I tried to make much of them, because I was feeling guilty that I’d looked so shocked and hadn’t played it cool in front of the stunned- and scared-looking five-year-old girl whom I’d forgotten was peering through the doorway behind me.
I tried to call the woman’s niece, whose number I have, this morning, and to inquire after her; but no one answered the phone. I keep thinking about her broken frame lying there on the ground, as though she’d carefully gotten down on her knees and lain out to take an endless nap. Beneath and beside the culprit vehicle, she looked so very small.
I worry a lot about my homebound clients, to whom I bring food on a monthly basis. Most of them live in the Alazan-Apache Courts, the public housing projects that fringe our church. Near the beginning of my year here, one of my assistants related to me the graphic story of how she had gone to check on her older sister once and had found her sprawled out on the floor, dead for a day and rigor mortis set in and a stain of dried blood making a unicolor rainbow on the bare tiles beneath her. She had lived in the Courts, and I think that every time thereafter that I went to visit my clients, and pounded on the doorbell-less doors and didn’t get an answer right away, I had that story in the back of mind and feared that I would be the one to make such a gruesome discovery.
It is strangely fascinating whenever one of my clients reflects on her own age, and on the physical process of aging. One of them, named Norma, may have been 4-foot ten in her prime, but is now so hunchbacked from a severe spinal disorder that she literally doesn’t reach my waist. Her entire torso runs parallel to the floor, and when I talk to her, I have to lean in so close that my own back begins to hurt after two or three minutes. She has a brilliant sense of humor about her condition, though, and every time I come in, she asks in a squeaky voice, “Did you bring your microscope?” I used to demur, as though I didn’t have any idea what she was talking about, whereupon she’d admonish me, “Don’t pretend! You do need a microscope! Or at least a magnifying glass, like Sherlock Holmes. I am getting smaller…smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller and smaller…” She’d hold up her thumb and index finger pursed together, as though indicating the size of a flea. “Pretty soon — you no see me. That’s how small I gonna be!”
Margarita, living in the alley directly behind the church, wasn’t so impish in her irony the first time she acknowledged her dwindling powers. Norma, learning that I’d studied in France, would clap her hands rhythmically and force me to dance a can-can, crying, “Bravo, bravo!” in her small, shrill voice. Not so Margarita. My oldest client (I think about ninety) and perhaps my most devout, she would periodically and with great dignity ask me to bless her. As her health declined over the year, her nieces and daughters would sometimes be there in the house and ask me for their blessing, too. After I’d bungled my way through some sort of prayer, they would often respond with a reverent, “Gracias, Padre.”
“Oh,” I would hasten to explain. “I’m not a priest.”
“You’re not?” would come the surprised response. “You look like a Father.” I attribute this more to my growing monastic bald spot than to any palpable aura of holiness. God knows I was goofy and awkward enough in those situations, especially at the beginning of the year, when I hadn’t spent much time around the elderly and didn’t quite know what sort of tone or demeanor I ought to strike.
As I was saying, the first time Margarita’s age came up on one of my visits to this dimly lit and pious household, I was asking her to sign her name on the confirmation form I always brought around. (I ceased bringing it to any of my clients around Christmastime. It really wasn’t necessary to make them sign. We trusted each other.) On this form, there are twelve lines, one for each month, and by the end of the year, you could look back and see that Margarita’s signature, relatively clear and firm in January, had become fainter and wavier over time, until on Thanksgiving it was little more than a squiggle. I always notice stuff like this, yet until that day in November I operated under the naive assumption that my clients themselves surely never did. As it happened, Margarita stopped about half-way (seven seconds) through the signature, blinked once at the historical record of deteriorating penmanship under her eyes, and let out a small sound. “It’s getting smaller,” she noted wistfully.
In March, I arrived at Margarita’s house and found her lying in bed, looking particularly weak and surrounded by family. “Margarita,” I asked, with trepidation. “Are you sick?”
“She’s not feeling very well,” explained a younger (but not young) female relative, as Margarita looked at me mutely, almost uncomprehendingly, her once shrewd intelligence seeming dimmed. “Father, would you give us your blessing?”
“I…I’m not a priest,” I said slowly, not taking my eyes off Margarita’s sunken eyes.
“You’re not?” The woman heaved a sigh, then said cynically, “Well, it’s not like they wear their collars anymore, anyway.”
I prayed with the family and went on my way. The next month, Margarita was still in bed. This time she was sleeping, and she didn’t wake up when I came in. A few weeks after that, I was trying to blink myself awake during morning Mass when during the Prayers of the Faithful, our pastor, Father Ron, included a petition for Margarita, who — he said — was clinging tenuously to life in the house next door, and whom he’d be visiting to deliver Last Rites after Mass.
I ran into Father Ron on my way out of church. “Is Margarita ill?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I’d give her maybe twenty-four hours. Do you know her?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Well, if you want to visit her…” he trailed off.
I didn’t visit her. I was afraid, though I’m not exactly sure of what. It wasn’t as though I really knew her or her family, I told myself; my visits there only lasted five minutes, once a month. And I didn’t want to intrude into what must have been a private moment. How would I even make an entrance? I couldn’t come in bearing food, but nor could I just come in and say, “I’m the guy who brings her groceries…I heard she was dying, and wanted to say –” what? Goodbye?
And hell, they’d probably ask me to administer Last Rites.
These are excuses. There may be a glimmer of reality to them, but they remain excuses, and I can’t help but feel they’re pitiful ones. At least, when Margarita died the next day, I couldn’t help but feel guilty for having stayed away, for having kept my prayers to myself — I, who barely knew her, and whom her family so frequently mistook for a priest.
Some priest. I didn’t even learn my lesson. One of my clients, a lady named Felicia who always enjoyed my visits, failed to answer the door in April, and when I called her, there was also no response. Oh no, I heard a voice in my soul. Not this… I came back the next day, and then the next week, and still no response. Later, Carlos — the same man who called an ambulance to take away the woman from Piedras Negras — told me that Felicia (to whom he brought the Eucharist every Sunday after Mass) had been at Santa Rosa Hospital for the last few weeks. I meant to go visit her, but for some inexplicable reason — a moral lethargy which it takes a dramatic situation, sometimes, to reveal? — never did. Thank God, she returned to health and returned home in May. The last two times I’ve seen her, I’ve stayed with her for a half-hour. This is not just an effort to appease my guilty conscience. I really enjoy it. I wish I could spend this amount of time with all of my twenty-two homebound clients. They are beautiful people. (Well, we all are.)
I have a client named Catalina. I said before that Margarita was my most pious homebound client, though maybe I spoke too soon. Catalina, who doesn’t speak a word of English, was abducted from her home in Mexico when she was two or three years old. Her earliest memories are of being kept in a cage or a crib, and receiving repeated visions of the Holy Child of Atocha (who is said in Christian lore to bring solace to captives). She was later found and freed, married and then widowed in her twenties, and came to the United States, where she worked for decades as a maid in a wealthy Houston household. Though not Catholic themselves, her patrons would take her to church every Sunday, she told me reverently. Now she lives in a senior apartment complex on El Paso St. in San Antonio where her neighbor, Elisa, always complains that there is nothing to do and the staff, rather than schedule activities, just waits for them to die. Catalina’s belief in God’s guidance throughout all her ordeals is unshakable. Her demeanor is serene. Her joy is simple and pure. And her pious exclamations are at once profoundly moving and really funny: she is always calling out to mi Dioscito (“my little God”), and, in a move which is particularly dubious theologically, to mi padre Jesús (“my Father, Jesus”).
Catalina’s dog was named Lady. It may have been the only English word she knew. Lady was the fattest chihuahua I’d ever seen, as fat as Catalina is skinny. She was also the most beloved dog I’d seen in a long time. Catalina would take five minutes to rise from her sofa-bed, cross the kitchen, and answer the door for me, and invariably, there in the little carry space of her walker, Lady would lounge, panting heavily as though fat tissue were rendering her tiny trachea impassable to air. “We all knew, all of us except Catita, that that dog was gonna die,” Elisa told me, after it had happened. “All she ever did was feed that damn dog.” I never actually saw Catalina feeding Lady, but I do know that every time I visited — and I stayed longer at the gentle Catalina’s than at any of my other clients’ homes (usually more than an hour) — she would spend the whole time stroking her beloved dog.
The first time I visited Catalina after Lady had died, I hadn’t been made aware of what had happened. Catalina greeted me with an empty walker. At first I didn’t say anything. I guessed, because the always-smiling Catalina seemed unusually dejected, but I waited until she had led me to the living room, and Lady wasn’t anywhere in sight. There was just a picture of the little dog, a picture faded purple with age as though it had been taken decades earlier, propped up on the dresser alongside the customary images of a doe-eyed Jesus and his radiating Sacred Heart. Catalina and I made small talk, avoiding the elephant in the room, until after a minute or two the conversation lulled. Catalina looked down, then up at me, and whispered, “Murió Lady.” She started to cry.
I went over to the sofa without any idea how and whether to console her. We are raised to think about manners in America, and on most days this serves us well, but what is our human development worth if we get to be twenty-four and still have to think about how we should react under circumstances such as these? I held her hand. Like a young suitor making his first shy moves with a girl he loves, I reached awkwardly, ridiculously, and devoutly for the hand of this woman three times my age; she reached her own hand forward; and I held it for several minutes while she wept. In my heart, I was sad too, over many things. Now, whenever I call her to say hello, or visit her, the serene acceptance of her old age and fragile health is gone, and she always sighs forlornly, “Aquí estoy, no más yo y mis dolores.” Although our conversations — me, in my halting Spanish! — make her smile, there remains some sad secret playing around the corners of her lips, of her eyes. She feels ready, I think, to fall asleep in Christ, in her Dioscito.
I’ve heard so many of my clients say so: “Who wants to live forever?” Or, “Aquí estoy, Señor, soy lista.” And yet, I don’t want this rather macabre-sounding essay to end on a hopeless note. At this point, these reflections bifurcate. On the one hand, I believe that the best way to reconcile ourselves with the tragedy of death (without welcoming death as a means of salvation from an agonized life that we would thereby be inclined to love less) is to allow ourselves to believe in eternal life. It is precisely in his encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, that Pope Benedict reconciles our oftentimes conflicting attitudes towards death:
Obviously there is a contradiction in our attitude, which points to an inner contradiction in our very existence. On the one hand, we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die. Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely. So what do we really want? Our paradoxical attitude gives rise to a deeper question: what in fact is life? And what does eternity really mean? There are moments when it suddenly seems clear to us: yes, this is what true “life” is, this is what it should be like…St Augustine once wrote: Ultimately we want only one thing: the “blessed life,” the life which is simply life, simply happiness. In the final analysis, there is nothing else that we ask for in prayer. Our journey has no other goal—it is about this alone. But then Augustine also says: looking more closely, we have no idea what we ultimately desire, what we would really like. We do not know this reality at all; even in those moments when we think we can reach out and touch it, it eludes us. “We do not know what we should pray for as we ought,” he quotes St Paul.
…I think that in this very precise and permanently valid way, Augustine is describing man’s essential situation, the situation that gives rise to all his contradictions and hopes. In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown “thing” is the true hope which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity. The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known unknown. Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal” suggests the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it. To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time, the before and after, no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy. This is how Jesus expresses it in Saint John’s Gospel: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
There is another way, apart from the eschatological one, to end these reflections on a note of hope, though it is one perhaps more tinged with melancholy. In addition to these experiences of mine at work, which are laden with the tragedy of the shut-in and the unvisited, I have known other people whom death has recently visited and saddened, and in rather eerily close succession. Perhaps you have, too. Thinking about a few of these people in particular, and without this being the place for details or stories, it occurs to me that the events surrounding their passage were different from the nightmarish visions I sometimes morbidly imagine for the lonely ones of the world. These souls inspire me to think that there really is such a thing as a beautiful death. I wouldn’t want to label any specific death beautiful for fear of sounding like I’m relativizing its tragedy. No death is happy. Yet as I continue to age and negotiate a world of which death is an insuperable part, I witness the death of those who die surrounded by family — by family who love them and pray for them and continue to create beautiful and spiritual ways of remembering them later on — whose eulogies and obituaries testify to a life well lived…and I can’t help but say, at least, that when the time comes for me, this is how I would like to go; this is how I would like to be prayed for, loved and remembered.
May we all have the character to do as they have done: to touch our families, communities, and society in a deep and grace-filled way.
May all those who have toiled in this life, rejoiced in this life, and departed this life know rest, peace, and love in the life to come.
And may all those who mourn, everywhere and for every reason, be comforted.