I awoke today remembering that it was the feast day of St. Scholastica. Then I looked at my email and found these words of wisdom from the Henri Nouwen Society, entitled Dying Well. Subsequently I recalled that I was having a mass offered in memory of a woman I knew named Carol. She died a few months ago, a long, slow death from cancer.
Carol was a parishioner at the parish that I work at and I only met her in December 2008. She was a remarkable woman with a big, round moon of a face that showed her weariness but showed her presence and love much more profoundly. These matters are of course connected – weariness and love. With her soft, soft voice she would enter the office and begin speaking to me in Polish. I know about 5 words in Polish, but that did not deter Carol, who would carry on a whole conversation while filling me in with a few words of English.
I would sit at my desk and watch her with wonder and delight, the round softness of her face, the light in her eyes, her brilliant smile and the ever-present turban that reminded us all of her cancer. It was the only reminder; she was ever bubbling over with life and spirit in her words and presence, even through this weariness that manifested itself as a light also, just perhaps slightly more dim.
Carol often spoke to me about her brother, a very erudite man who is a Catholic priest in another part of the country. If I were to publish his name, you could easily google it and learn about him. He is a scholar, a teacher and a writer. Carol was very dedicated to him.
Over the months Carol would dip down and come close to death. She would often call me from the hospital to say hello and give me an update. She knew exactly what was happening and I never heard or saw fear in her. She had a rich quality that combined deep and ancient wisdom with a childlike wonder. And Carol had no fear about meeting the God she adored.
It seemed that Carol might never die – a hopeful thought for those who knew her. Yet that was not to be the case. She kept dancing with death, but with a bit of a polka beat, as her Polish heritage dictated. Carol neither rushed towards nor avoided her death in my experience, she was in relationship with her life through her relationship with God and God’s people. It is utterly impossible to live well without being able to have some insight that this also means to die well.
That is pretty much the essence of Jesus’ life and death and also of our Christian faith. This is not static, this is not a strictly here or there proposition, but rather a dynamic. It is organic and alive – living and dying are elements of something much larger.
The time finally came, Carol was slowly going home to God. Her brother came to town and stayed for awhile, but God was not yet ready and Carol lived on a short while longer, maybe a week, with no further signs of active death.
It was in these days that I began to learn more about Carol’s brother and I learned that in a book he wrote, he dedicated it to “his Scholastica.”
The day came and we all wept. Carol was only in my life for less than a year, but she touched me deeply. The entire community came together and wept and wept.
Carol lived with intention and she died with intention. It was a gift to behold.
Today I remember Carol as I reflect on Saint Scholastica and on dying well. I am not sure how this is done, this dying – or living – well. I do know that I long to do both in their right time.
Rest in peace dear Carol. St. Scholastica, please pray for us.
(Our great friend Padre Mickey has some fine words for the Feast over at his place today.)
Carol sounds as if she was a remarkable woman. There is a woman in our town who is living with cancer with similar courage. She's our mayor's secretary and everyone knows and loves her. Even though the outlook is poor, her spirits are always good and she never dwells on her illness. She continues to go to work and do what she loves. I hope I would have the same courage in a situation like that. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.
Fran, it's very fitting that you are remembering Carol and her priest brother on the Memorial of Saint Scholastica.Saint Scholastica was also close to her brother, a man of faith — Saint Benedict.Scholastica and Carol, pray for us!
Prayers for Carol, her brother and all who knew, loved and admired her.
Fran, how beautiful. Carol lived so close to God that her dying may have been only a slight transition for her – but not so slight for those who love her and miss her earthly presence.
Fran, "dying well" is a topic not often discussed and you do a beautiful job of reminding us it can be done. I miss the Carols of my life much like you do yours, yet I'm grateful for the legacy of life and wisdom they've left us. May Carol–and all the "Carols"–rest joyfully in their Creator's arms. And may we learn better to live well like them so we may also die well like them.
This post made me reflect on my mother's death, a little more than 5 years ago. While Mom was not obviously pious, she truly tried to live as Christ — being completely present to everyone she came in contact with. She was just as present to her death when that time came, and I was privileged to be there with her in her dying.Shortly after Mom died, I read a book called "Good Life, Good Death", by a Tibetan Buddhist lama who's name I of course cannot remember. He wrote of the Tibetan concept of how death occurs over time, in stages, and the belief that death is merely a transition in our existence, not an end, and thus is worth being done well. I believe Catholic teaching could be construed in a similar way: death is something you DO as a part of life, not something that just happens to you, so take charge of it and do it as well as you can.I feel the same way about faith: it's something you DO, not something you HAVE. Some of us need to work harder at it than others, just as some of us will need to work harder at our dying (and living) than others. I firmly believe, though, that it is always, always worth the struggle.May we all follow Carol's example of a truly blessed life and truly blessed death. Thank you, Fran, for sharing your thoughts on her.
What a wonderful tribute to Carol, I think one can have a good death as well as a good life.Thank you for sharing this as I have experienced death on a very close and personal level. Of the 5 family members who passed all had good deaths but one and to this day it bothers me as I pray for him and all of them….:-) Hugs
Thank you one and all for the beautiful and thoughtful comments. And welcome Bernie! I know you from Paul's blog and it is great to see you here; thanks for coming by.