How beautiful the deathbed of Benedict must have been. What a wonder to have been there.
We are a bit spooked by death and dying. Seeing a body in a coffin at a wake is a jarring thing. But to be there as someone lay dying? That is a whole other thing, a profound thing.
Five years ago, journalist Kate O’Beirne lay dying of lung cancer at Georgetown University Hospital. Word began to circulate that her friends had gathered around her bed to say the Rosary with her. I felt great envy that I was not among them. Kate was my friend and sometimes mentor, but for some reason, I lacked the courage to ask to go.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Not long after, Mickie Teetor lay dying at her daughter’s house in Great Falls. Mickie was a great woman, a late-in-life convert who inspired many to get involved in her various apostolic activities, including a catechetical group in New York City and a Montessori School in Great Falls (a school that changed my daughters’ lives, not to mention my life and my wife’s). Her daughter Vickie let it be known that her mother’s deathbed was an open house. Those were the words she spoke: an open house. Knock on the door and come in. So, we did. My wife and I sat with Mickie at her bedside. We spoke to her, though she did not respond. We held her hand and said the Rosary.
A few months ago, my dear friend Elizabeth Spalding told me that her mother, Anne Edwards, the beloved wife of my friend, mentor, and hero Lee Edwards, was in the hospital and nearing death. Lee is one of the grand old men of the modern conservative movement. He is like Zelig, present at all the key events going back to the drafting of the Sharon Statement at the Connecticut estate of young William F. Buckley. An achingly young Lee ran the press operation for the Goldwater campaign in 1964. Small world: Mickie Teetor worked on that campaign.
So, Lee’s wife, Anne, who spent many years in pain, was now near death. I gathered the courage and asked Elizabeth if I could visit the room. Of course, she said, we would love it. I think my request made her very happy. Oh, the rush of emotions as you approach the room where someone is dying and where the family is gathered in grief.
I knocked quietly on the door, peaked in. Each of them—husband Lee, daughters Elizabeth and Catherine, son-in-law Matthew, grandson Joseph—rose to hug me or shake my hand. Anne lay there on her last bed.
We spoke. Told stories. They talked of the emergency that brought her to this point. All the while, Anne lay there with color in her cheeks, surprising warmth in her hands, yet still hovering close to death. We said the Rosary with her. Though she did not respond, everyone knew she heard all the things we said.
One thing we talked about was angels. We knew the room was packed with angels. Angels were so thick you could brush them with your hand. Right there, just out of view, just beyond our peripheral vision, as if you could turn your head quickly and actually see one ducking out of sight.
Priest friends had come many times, to give her Last Rites, to give her the Apostolic Blessing. They explained, as did various nurses, that the family had to let her know that she could go, that she was waiting for their permission to go.
A priest they did not know came in after I had gone. I heard this later, after she had passed. He told them what they had heard before. You have to give her permission to go. But Lee and his family already knew that, and they had given her permission, but she stayed and stayed.
But this priest said that Lee had to believe it himself. He had to really let her go. How is it possible to internalize letting your wife of decades go? It is both beautiful and horrible to behold. In much the same way, one can imagine the wrestling of Anne in her soul. I do not want to go. I know my going will cause you pain. But I see Our Lord and Our Lady right there and my Guardian Angel is waiting to take me to them. Perhaps I will stay just a little while longer.
Lee knelt, held Anne’s hand, and gave her permission to go; and he, for the first time, truly believed it. A few hours later, she was gone.
I told these stories to a friend over coffee one day. He is a very private man of Latin descent. The idea of an open house at a death bed was shocking to him. But this is a private event. How could others be present? A deathbed is certainly intimate, there is no question about that. But, in an interesting kind of way, it is also a public event. It is a moment where we are called to come near to death, to pray, to witness, to learn. It is a moment for the dying to teach us how to do this mysterious thing.
Jesus was there that day; so was the Blessed Mother, and so many angels. And so, imagine the holy death of Anne and Kate and Mickie and Benedict; and if you are able, do not hesitate to assist at someone’s holy death. You will never regret it.