Living in the moment

By 
  • January 16, 2013

For someone who is neither doctor nor priest, there is something spectacularly meditative about encountering death face-to-face four times in one year.

A year ago this month, my wife’s mother died after a long affliction.

In August, my colleague Michael Van Pelt’s 15-year-old son, Kenton, drowned at the family cottage in one of those tragedies that makes life feel as if all Earth has dropped into a hell of particularly inexplicable, random cruelty.

Halfway through November, my father-in-law died quickly after a diagnosis of cancer, still grieving his beloved wife’s death.

On Dec. 29, our good family friend and fellow anti-euthanasia campaigner, Dr. André Bourque, was killed by an aneurism as he shovelled Christmas snow.

With all four deaths, I was among those God favoured to stand before the deceased in prayer, and look into faces that had, mere countable hours before, smiled, laughed, talked, worried, wondered, scowled, sung and otherwise engaged in all the amazing expressions of human life.

In Kenton Van Pelt, I saw the fine strong face of a handsome young man senselessly suspended at mid-point in the arc from adolescence to adulthood. I’d enjoyed a family meal with him a week previously, and marvelled at the signs of maturing Christian character emerging from him. His death so young made a mockery of our culture’s arbitrary categories of age. It reminded me that, in the essentials, we all share one age: the marvel of the single moment we are living right now.

In Dr. André Bourque, I looked into a face miraculously imbued and embedded with kindness. It was the face of a devoutly Catholic doctor who gave his all for the care of his patients and who, when he felt those patients threatened by the encroaching evil of legalized euthanasia and assisted suicide, worked tirelessly to rally grassroots Quebecers and his medical colleagues alike to stop the scourge. Not lost in the passage from life to death was his ever-present air of calm and wisdom and determination to do what is right. Sometimes, the grand gesture, yes. More often, the small touch, the encouraging word, the gracious answer, the good laugh that were all signs of Christ’s presence in everything Dr. Bourque did.

For my mother-in-law, a devotional light returned to her features after almost a decade of ravaging, darkening dementia. I will go to my own death convinced that light was the same as the one that shone when my wife asked, moments before death, if her mother wanted her long-deceased friend, Soeur Alice, to come and take her home. At the sound of the nun’s name, my mother-in-law sat up, drew her last few breaths, looked toward a corner of the ceiling and lay down with a small smile on her lips. Her light gave the lie to the pernicious belief that we ever need a euthanizing needle in the arm to die with dignity.

Perhaps because I was present at the very fragment of an instant separating his life from his death, it is my father-in-law’s passing that I encounter most often and concretely these days. It is his face I see most vividly when I ponder the cluster of deaths that marked 2012.

My wife and I were at his bedside, in the little house where he lived for 50 years, when his ragged breathing warned us he was slipping away. When he breathed, stopped, then snatched a final few gasps of air, we were holding his hand, saying silent prayers, listening with our whole being to the sound of life arising and departing.

Looking deeply into the face I had known and loved for 30 years, I felt a dizzying sense of him receding toward the beginning of his life. My father-in-law was not a tall man, though he was powerful in chest, shoulders and arms. Lying lifeless, he became first a younger man, then a little boy, then the infant who lay at his mother’s breast 80-plus years ago.

The feeling was, I’m inclined to think, God reminding me of the folly of putting all my faith in the fruits of humanly created time. It was His call to meditate on the necessity of turning my face, again and again, toward Christ as He bends from eternity into the history that is my life.

Moments are where we live. His grace in each and every one of those moments has conquered death for once and for all.

(Stockland is the Director of the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal in Montreal.)

 

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