Glioblastoma stage 4. The family looked at each other in shock. The doctor kept talking, but few heard his words. The son looked at his mother with loving concern. Despite the summer heat outside, he felt cold. He felt fear. At age 75, having retired as a schoolteacher a decade earlier, his mother had scarcely slowed down. She served on two nonprofit boards and made a point to spend equal time with her five grandchildren throughout the year. It started with sharp headaches that increasingly lingered. The doctor mentioned John McCain, mentioned surgery, mentioned radiation. "Let's do this," the woman finally replied with a calm demeanor.
The surgery was a complete failure, my friend relayed to me this past September when I called to check on his mother. Once they opened her skull, the tumor was much larger than they hoped. Then, while on the operating table, she suffered a massive stroke. "We're going to try radiation," my friend told me with obvious pain in his voice. "We just want to give her one last Christmas with the whole family."
Later reports only served to deepen this family's misery, and on the first week of this month, she was moved to hospice. Christmas was now out of the question. The entire family gathered to keep an end-of-life vigil with their matriarch.
Last week, when I called my friend to express my condolences, he thanked me but in an excited voice said, "You won't believe what happened the day she passed!" It seems that as the whole family gathered round her bed that final morning, the dying woman only could say the word "hurt" before lapsing into groans and cries. Then suddenly, without any warning or prompting, she began praying. It was slow, it was forced, it was slurred at times, but each word was clearly heard:
Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with you.
Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
As the woman would finish the end of the prayer, without hesitation, she would start over. The family joined in, and soon the room was awash in the chanting sounds. Sons, daughters, grandchildren, each carried on their part, each growing in joy about what was happening, what they were seeing, what they were feeling. Love filled the room. This would go on for over three hours without stopping. Finally, with labored gasping, the old woman stopped the prayer, closed her eyes and was gone.
Some say accidents and inspiration lead us to our final destination. We search the horizon for what we can't see when it's always been right in front of us. We find we're already home. And when we cross over, it is said, the only thing we take with us is our love. For some, it is the last gift a dying woman can give her family, wrapped in winter, somewhere in the stars. Merry Christmas.
Sey Young is a local businessman, father and longtime resident of Bentonville. Email him at [email protected].