Through four months of shared caring, first at home and then in an excellent hospice, our family said a long good-bye to a middle brother lingering somewhere between heaven and earth. There were evenings full of grace, both the natural and supernatural kinds, most particularly on a night when his room seemed suffused with a gentle light and with a pleasing, indescribable scent. “We call that the scent of heaven,” one experienced nurse explained.
With our brother still able to talk with us, to pray with us, and to share his thoughts and feelings, it was not difficult to feel some awe at the whole process of dying and to find an appropriate pastel-shade with which to regard it all.
That changed, of course, as we knew it would. After months of lingering on the periphery, our family finally and fully stepped into the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows.
We watched efficient nurses administer pain medicine to my brother and then, with eyes brimming, give him sound kisses on his forehead. “I don’t know what we’re going to do when he leaves us,” one nurse choked to me. “We all love him so, and it’s not going to seem right without him here.”
Another nurse, her shift ended, was discovered sitting by his bed in the wee small hours. “I just wanted to keep him company and pray for all of you,” she offered.
Near the end, our brother went quiet. He moaned and coughed. When he spoke, it was only a word or two, soft and hoarse and largely unintelligible. Our visits are less conversational. The time of sharing memories and managing a smile or two was past.
Many would contend that what life our brother had left was only pathetic, a life of suffering and sorrow, that counted for nothing. Many would say it. What I say in response is this: My brother’s life at that point was exactly like his life ten years before. It was huge, it was love-filled, and it was fraught with humanity.
The Way of Sorrows
The Way of Sorrows is the Way of the Cross. It is a process of being open to, and acknowledging, and fully living through those times in our lives when we know humiliation, or hardship, or failing, or shared suffering. One of the stops is entitled “Jesus Meets His Mother,” and we saw that powerful image played out over and over in my brother’s last weeks.
I watched as Mom fed her dying son his supper, patiently holding small spoonful after small spoonful to his lips, encouraging him to swallow and take a little more, offering him a drink, dabbing at his lips. Occasionally, watching him do the hard work of simply eating, she would shake her head sadly and offer him another bite.
I watched this unshrinking woman — a woman who, ten years before, would have told you that she could not possibly endure such a reality — feed her son a pureed meal from his dish, while she nourished him, and the rest of us present, in a completely different way, with her unconditional love.
Forty years earlier, she had fed her son, too. Back then it was a game. Here, it became a heavy sadness. But both meals had been flavored by the constancy of her love.
No Image in Pastels
This is no image in pastels. Nothing this heroic can be portrayed in pinks and yellows and blues. Only the starkest of colors, boldly cast, can be used to relate what we saw and experienced in those days. One night, we stepped outside his room to allow the nurse to turn her patient in his bed. We know she used the utmost care and delicacy in handling our brother, and yet we could see, upon re-entering his room, how exhausting it had been for our brother.
I stood at the foot of the bed and saw his face as Mom drew near. Too exhausted for words, he reached for her and she took his hand. His eyes saw only his mother, and they said, “Mommy . . . oh, my Mommy,” and her eyes said the rest: “Son . . . oh, my son.”
But this is too sad, it is. Life is so very sad and so very beautiful. Some will scoff: “Beauty? What beauty? What kind of sick mind can find beauty in this pietà? It would have been more beautiful to help your brother to end his suffering. Real love has nothing in common with pain. What was gained from all of this, beside some medieval Catholic satisfaction in suffering?”
I can only answer that question with a question: Do you think that giving my lionhearted brother a “compassionate” needle would truly have lessened our suffering, or his? By cutting short the process, do we step off the Via Dolorosa and avoid it all, or do we merely thwart a plan for our own lives? Should we have stolen from our brother the opportunity for him to reach out a hand and have it immediately grasped, to have everything about his existence affirmed, over and over?
Should we have stolen from ourselves the opportunity to love?
Elizabeth Scalia is Editor-at-Large at Aleteia.org , and the author of the award-winning books, Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life and Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick Us. This is adapted from a longer essay, A Via Dolorosa Not to Be Missed.