Holy Week and Death

What I thought was exhaustion and jet lag upon returning home from Thailand and Nepal quickly turned into fever, cough, malaise, and weakness. I spent three days in bed, emerging only for trips to bathroom and kitchen. The trips to the kitchen seemed grueling in my weakened and dizzy state; after getting something to drink and some other basic necessity, I’d collapse into a recliner to rest up for the trip back down the hallway and back to bed.

Most of the time, I slept.

Until I got sick, I had had two priorities for that time: to rush to my mother’s side and make up for the time together I’d missed while gone, and to ready our house for a visit from my daughter and her family. Neither was to be.

This was supposed to be an extra special time, something I’ve been eagerly anticipating. Last year, after Pascha, I had determined to make this Holy Week even more of a priority; I’d marked it off on my calendar so as not to inadvertently schedule anything else during that time. Among other things, I was looking forward to joining local parishes in an annual 15 mile Stations of the Cross walk on Good Friday.

As time went on, the significance of this year grew even more — three people I deeply love will be entering the Church during the Easter Vigil at the local Roman Catholic parish, the same one where my daughter and her family had entered the Church.

But my best laid plans were being upended. When it was growing very close to the time that my daughter and family were to begin traveling here, I was still very sick. We agreed that it would be best if they didn’t come. In the meantime, all my efforts were going towards recovering so that I would be well enough to visit my mother and not put her and her entire care home at serious risk.

I spent Palm Sunday alone at home… Not being at church was eerily reminiscent of 2020, during the COVID lockdowns.

On Monday of Holy Week, I was feeling much better and considered donning an N95 mask and visiting my mother. Her nurse, hearing me cough over the phone, urged me to stay home.

On Tuesday of Holy Week, the nurse suggested I come. I quickly got ready and was on my way out to the car when I got the phone call from one of my mother’s caregivers.

My mother was gone.

Somehow I managed to drive. I managed to try to make two phone calls while I was driving — using my silly little dumb phone and praying I wouldn’t crash. One person answered, and somehow I managed to deliver the sad news and drive at the same time and not run off the road and not crash into anyone.

I worked at a hospital in my early 20’s. I watched some people die. I saw dead bodies. Years later, I watched my brother die. More recently, I watched my father die.

But nothing, nothing on earth, could have ever prepared me for walking alone into my mother’s room and encountering her still warm but lifeless body.

I sat vigil at her bedside. I prayed. I did the typical thing we tend to do when our loved ones die and we feel compelled to speak to them as if they are still there. I searched for her Daily Light but both copies of her favorite devotional book had managed to disappear from her room in my absence. I prayed some more.

In between, I had an awful moment of collapsing on the floor in profound grief.

I made a few phone calls. I answered some. It is in moments like these, in the depths of pain and sorrow, when I am always so profoundly awestruck by those people in my life who somehow know how to love me well, who show me Jesus by allowing Him to shine through them. If I were to sum up my “testimony”, my faith journey thus far, it’s that — as I often say these days — “God wooed and pursued me”. And He often used people to do so. Some of those people were God’s hands and feet and voice yesterday, when I needed that tender loving comfort most of all.

My husband arrived just in time so that we could watch them take my mother’s body off to the mortuary.

I lost my beloved Opa shortly before Holy Week of 1977, and celebrating the Resurrection in the midst of grief seemed oh so profoundly glorious. In the years since, and especially now that I celebrate the liturgical calendar more deeply and fully, Holy Week has become much more significant and meaningful — and the Resurrection tremendously more triumphant and joy-filled.

There is no better time, it seems, to be so exhausted, so wracked with grief and loss, and so at the end of oneself than now, this very week.

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