She is eighty-six years old and requires constant nursing care. Until her retirement she was a college professor; until her illness she led an active retirement. A major stroke some few years ago deprived her of speech by partially paralyzing her throat and facial muscles. Age, frailty, and arthritis have done the rest. Her niece, her only family and only marginally connected to the parish, has asked me to see her.
I’m a young Lutheran pastor, only ordained one month. (That was many years ago. I’m now a Catholic.) I don’t know her.
She has great difficulty swallowing because of the paralysis. She drools continually. Her tongue lolls to one side, some portion of it always outside her mouth. She has no teeth; they were removed after the stroke to aid her swallowing. She is embarrassed by her appearance and holds a tissue to her lower face, hiding, absorbing the saliva.
She communicates with an occasional grunt, all she can manage vocally, and laboriously writes responses and questions in a large, childish hand on an oversized note pad. Her eyesight is poor. She writes blind, huge looping letters in a long scrawl. She can’t see what she writes and I can’t read it. I have to ask her to write it again, and once more, frustrated with myself that I cannot read it the first time and must ask a second and a third time.
Her mind is active, inquisitive. She has numerous talking books for the blind about her room. Some, I note, are very recent titles.
She writes and begins to weep, the soft, low animal sounds of someone deeply wounded. I can’t read it. She writes it again. “I am a prisoner.”
Of what, I wonder. Her body? This nursing home?
“I want to die,” she writes. “Why won’t God let me die?”
“I don’t know,” and I reach for her hand. If I hold her hand she can’t write this stuff, and I don’t want to read it.
This isn’t the way shut-in calls are supposed to work. The mythology is, I am the one who is to go away marveling at the capacity for human faith in adversity, and the person visited is to be cheered with the comfort of the pastor’s presence. There is nothing here at which to marvel, and poor comfort to give. All that is here is an old lady who wants to die and a pastor who doesn’t know why God won’t let her. Why won’t God just let her die?
I ask if she would like Holy Communion. She grunts through the tissue. I assume she means yes. I commence the ritual. We share communion. I shave a sliver of bread from the wafer and mingle it with a very small bit of wine, so she can receive without choking. I put it to her lips. She manages to swallow some.
I feel absurd. What we are doing feels absurd. I am drained, exhausted after fifteen minutes with an old woman I don’t know. It seems surreal, if not meaningless.
Hurriedly, I pronounce the benediction, wondering with what degree of favor the Lord does look upon this old woman. The mythological piety of pastoral calling again takes over. She is now supposed to feel uplifted, her countenance transformed.
Nothing like that happens.
Sometimes faith is tossed into the teeth of realities we cannot fathom, and we can only hope to escape with as little damage to ourselves as possible.
Afterward, she reaches for the pad and scrawls something I can’t read. Hating myself for having to ask, I tell her to do it again. She writes “Thank you.”
I know so little about her. I know only she wants to die. Some many weeks later, after putting another visit off as long as I could before guilt propelled me go, I was preparing to see her again when the nursing home called. She had died that very morning.
I thanked God, but I still cannot say whether it was for her or for me.
Russell E. Saltzman, a former Lutheran pastor, entered the Catholic Church in 2016. He writes a regular column for First Things and for Aleteia, and his articles for Catholic World Report can be found here. He is the author of Speaking of the Dead. “Why Won’t God Just Let Her Die?” is adapted from his book The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays. His last article for Hour of Our Death was Death is Not Your Friend.