Else and Peter Pan on Halloween
By Allison Blay

As I sit down to write this, I have just come from another funeral.  Steve and I go to a lot of funerals—it sort of comes with the territory of volunteering at a nursing home.  However,  this particular funeral was not for someone we met through the nursing home, but rather for a former neighbor of ours—who later did spend some time in an assisted living facility.  Her name was Else, and she was this tiny, sweet little German lady.  She and her husband George (who died a couple of years ago) lived up the street from us, and we would see them often because they were almost always out in their yard, doing some sort of gardening or another—their property was a pristine park thanks to their meticulous care of it.  Else loved children, and when I would walk up the street with my son in the stroller, she would always take off her gardening gloves, and come over to tickle his toes, tousle his curls, and say “oh, what a beautiful baby.”

There were not many people at Else’s funeral today—only her daughter and son-in-law, and a handful of neighbors.  I couldn’t help thinking that Else deserved a cathedral packed with people, so sweet and tender-hearted was she.  She lived such a full life in her 89 years.  (I am told she was even an Olympic skier!)  I felt fortunate to be one of the people there to say good-bye to her.

November is a time in my faith tradition for remembering the dead.  Steve and I have so many friends who have gone on, and each of their names brings a smile to our faces as we think of them—Miller, Annie Mae, Judy, Sally, “Skybow”, Joanne, Dorsey, Bill, Jethro, Miss Black, Lana, Mr. Bowshot, “Granny”, Ruth, and on and on and on.  Annie Mae is the one I miss the most.  I visited her for seven years, several times a week—and now it is hard to believe she has already been gone seven years this month.  As difficult as it is to lose a friend, I feel it is such a blessing to know people during this sunset part of their life, to hear their stories, and to keep them company as they walk this last part of their journey.

Annie Mae and Allison, with Jethro and Steve
Only once have I actually been present when someone died—that was Judy, who was someone Steve and I got to know very early in our years of volunteering.  Judy was probably somewhere in her 50′s, and had end-stage colon cancer.  She was very quick-witted, and had a wonderful spirit.  One day she took us down to her room and said she wanted to give us a some things of hers: a couple of glass votive candle holders and a chipped ceramic angel.  She said she wanted us to have something to remember her by.  Not long after, her health went downhill very suddenly, and in just a matter of a couple of weeks she went from being the vibrant, spirited Judy we knew to being barely conscious…and then not conscious at all.

I remember the last week, her family was suddenly there all the time and I didn’t get a chance to see her much at all because I didn’t want to interrupt their time with her.  But one afternoon I peeked in her room and there she was, all by herself.  The nurse had told me she didn’t think it would be long now.

Her breathing was very labored.  She was visibly suffering, clearly ready to go.  What was holding her here?  I thought about how she had wanted us to remember her, and recalled reading about the needs of someone who is dying: to be remembered, and to be told it is o.k. to go.  So I took her hand and started talking to her, telling her “Judy, I promise we will remember you.  We will never forget you.  We love you.  It’s o.k. to go now.”  And I prayed that if it was time, God would take her home.  Slowly her breathing grew more spaced out.  I called for the nurse, and then went back and took her hand again, saying the same things to her.  In the minute or two it took for the nurse to get there, Judy breathed her last.  It was the only time I’ve ever seen someone die, and as it turned out, I was the only one there to witness her death.  I have never forgotten that moment, which was over a decade ago, and I don’t suppose I ever will.

Being present with those who are nearing the end of their lives can be sad, scary, painful, heart wrenching…but there is something mysteriously holy and beautiful about it too, something that is really beyond words.  I think during the time when someone dies, the veil between this life and the next flutters a little, and grace can enter in ways we do not expect.

I hope when my time comes, someone will be a friend to me—willing to hold my hand and tell me that they love me, and that they will remember me.  In the meantime, I am grateful to Judy, Else, Annie Mae, and so many others who have let Steve and I share the end of their journey with them… we will remember them always.