Death, often senseless death, seems to dominate news today.
Drug-trade-related deaths and murders destroy lives of all ages, even those of children, on mean city streets. Partying college students allow a fellow frat brother to die right before their droopy, drunken eyes. Terrorists take us back to even darker ages by beheading and crucifying their defenseless captives.
If there is such a thing as a beautiful death, I recently witnessed it. For me it was a first. I had never been in the presence of a person, let alone a loved one, when he or she died.
The only thing on my mind that Sunday morning was getting to work on time. So I drove there instead of taking my typical walk. During the day, I said some prayers for my Aunt Sue, who had been hospitalized the previous night. Toward day's end, I decided to swing by Lankenau Hospital after work and visit Sue.
My cousins Marguerite and John greeted me with hugs and updates. They had stayed by their mother's side overnight. Our Aunt Anne — sister to Sue and my late mother — had gone home after spending the afternoon bedside.
Sue had long lived with cardiovascular issues, but doctors were treating her for a clot in her spleen. Surrounded by bulky medical equipment, Sue lay in bed looking exhausted and vulnerable, but alert. John joked with his mom that her hairdo, done by her hairdresser two days earlier, was history. Sue smiled and laughed, not as heartily as usual, but she laughed.
When there was a lull in the activity of nurses and doctors monitoring and gently caring for Sue, I noticed an apprehensive look on her face. John was resting briefly on a nearby chair, and Marguerite was speaking with nurses. So I stepped up to the bedside to hold Sue's hands. They were cold, so I tried to warm them. She gripped my hands tightly. Later, when Sue relaxed her grip and seemed more peaceful, I moved away, hoping she might rest.
Not long after, Sue's breathing changed. It looked as if she was having a stroke. Nurses called "Code" and within minutes the room overflowed with more than 15 people. Nurses and doctors surrounded her bed, checking her and exchanging short, quick sentences about diagnoses. After a quick consultation with Marguerite and John, they wheeled Sue off for a test to determine damage.
When the medical professionals returned with Sue, they delivered a dire diagnosis with dose after dose of compassion. Marguerite and John asked them to do whatever was necessary to keep their mother comfortable in her final hours.
Marguerite shook off her shock and contacted her husband and their daughters and Aunt Anne. I slipped out of the room to telephone other family members, our Uncle Billy and his daughter, my brothers, and our cousins in Chicago. Somehow, Anne, Sue's son-in-law Richard, granddaughters Brianna and Nicolette, and Uncle Billy made it to the hospital on time.
As Sue slept peacefully, the Rev. Joseph Gleason, director of spiritual formation at St. Charles Seminary who also serves the spiritual needs of patients at Lankenau, happened to be passing by in the hallway. He came in, praying for and anointing Sue. The rest of us, including a hospital staffer or two, prayed aloud with him.
Earlier that day, Sue had received Holy Communion and the Sacrament of the Sick from the Rev. James Sherlock, who had been visiting a friend down the hall. Surely, this was comforting to all, especially Sue, a spunky woman of faith.
As she lay there under softened hospital lighting, my aunt's serene countenance reminded me of my mother's on the night before she died. At one point, Sue's lower lip began to move slightly when she exhaled. Within 15 to 20 minutes, my aunt took her last breath.
Suzanne Harkins died as she would have wanted — blessed and surrounded by her daughter, son, son-in-law, granddaughters, and her sister and brother with whom she grew up as one of the six Reilly siblings on Lancaster Avenue in West Philly.
This was a death with dignity. God's fingerprints were all over it.