“There’s an unspoken liturgy to dying, it’s the work of the people” ~ Sarah Bessey “Pansies“
“I have seen many people survive unsurvivable losses, and seen them experience happiness again. How is this possible? Love flowed to them from their closest people, and from their community, surrounded them, sat with them, held them, fed them, swept their floors. Time passed. In most cases, their pain evolved slowly into help for others.” ~ Anne Lamott Help Thanks Wow (quote inspiration from Kait)
Right off the 22 freeway, heading south from Los Angeles, you’ll come across St. Joseph’s Hospital. I’ve driven past it for years, never thinking that this would be a place where I would see such strength and grace in the final moments of life.
Sarah Bessey says “there’s an unspoken liturgy to dying, it’s the work of the people”. I don’t think my grandpa would want to re-tell the story about dying — and I don’t want to re-tell it either. But what I do want to tell is the stories of the work of the people. I don’t want to forget about the unsung heroes, the people of peace, the attentive caregivers, those whose precious hands held my grandpa’s as he left his home here and went to another one, free of sickness and death.
I want to remember the work of the people.
The work of the people is my mom. My mom is a host – and while you might not think that one can be a host in a hospital room, she would prove you wrong. She comforted her daughters with a hug as we entered the hospital, graciously greeted church visitors who sang songs to my grandpa and told him they loved him. She carried herself with courage and strength and created a space amidst the aching to love on my Grandpa. She adjusted his pillows and talked to the nurses, she knew what the monitors meant, what his blood pressure and oxygen levels were. She saw a room and wanted to fill it with a special kind of comforting presence.
The work of the people is my dad. My dad knows Scripture like the back of his hand. And on that Sunday in the hospital, he read verse after verse, Psalm after Psalm. He told Grandpa what he was reading, like you would a friend as you’re sharing something important with him. His voice was strong and the words weren’t a trite filler for the silence and tears, but rather a way to bring light into a place of sadness.
The work of the people is my aunts and uncles, my grandma, my cousins, the church Sunday school friends and Bible study group members. The doctor-question-askers, medical record takers, early morning and late night visitors. It’s the prayer warriors. It’s the neighbors who showed up with bagels and berries in a basket for our breakfast, the family who sent tulips and irises. They swept the floors, wiped the tears, cooked casseroles, delivered sunshine in the form of flowers and cards, held the weeping, listened to us tell stories.
When you leave the hospital, you’ll take the 22 freeway. A few exits away and a couple turns here and there and you’ll reach Grandpa and Grandma’s house. The work of the people continued there. When my grandpa left the hospital, the strong ones went with him: my mom, and two wonderful paramedics. The ambulance pulled up to the house and my mom was right there to open the door so Grandpa could rest again at his home. The first words I heard out of her mouth, with a smile, were “Look at the sunshine, Dad! You haven’t seen it in awhile. You’re home”. I greeted him there, too, tears beginning to stream down my cheeks. “Welcome home, Grandpa,” I said softly. I watched as he got set up in the living room, as his caregiver attentively helped him get situated, wanting him to be as comfortable as possible. I paused in that moment, and wept.
It may be easier to tell the stories of joyful holy work — and these stories are important, too. But I have learned something about another holy work. It is one that is rooted in love and grounded in hope. Those who are privileged to be the hand holders, prayer warriors, floor sweepers, encouragement-givers of the dying: this work of the people, in the midst of heartache and pain, is worth proclaiming and praising. It is holy, it is precious, it is sacred.
So I write the story to remember those holy moments, the times where I looked up through tears and watched my mother’s strength, saw my father’s faith, observed my aunt’s courage. Even in grief, I can say this work of the people is something beautiful and miraculous to witness. And that’s why I tell the story – to remember the miracle in the wake of death, to tell the story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things and being the hands and feet of Jesus in tangible ways.