After Dad died eleven years ago, our mom had a difficult time dealing with loneliness. She lost weight, her health declined, and she wasn't sleeping very well. On the advice of my friend, Leo Buscaglia, I spoke with my mother about selling the house and moving into a high-rise community for seniors. I explained that she would be with her own peers, people with whom she could connect. She agreed.
Within a few months, my mom's attitude and health changed-for the better. Whenever we visited, she was anxious to tell us about her new friends and all the activities in which she participated. Sharing with others brought her healing and helped her to survive the loss of her husband.
Five years ago, Mom had to have open-heart surgery, which she underwent with no complications. Life was great-until September 30, 2001.
While on vacation, my sister, Ann, and her husband, John, were getting ready to attend Sunday services at a nearby church. John told my sister to get the elevator, and he would be right with her.
While waiting at the elevator, wondering what was taking John so long, my sister watched a crew of paramedics run down the hall. When she asked one of the housekeeping staff what was happening, she was told, "Oh, I think the young man in room 464 had a heart attack."
Ann screamed. Room 464 was their room.
Ann ran to the room, but things didn't look good. The paramedics were working hard to save John's live, but he wasn't responding. They took John in an ambulance to the local emergency room, continuing to work on him the whole way. Finally, my sister heard these words from the doctor: "I'm sorry, but your husband is dead."
After picking up Mom, we drove my sister home. We made it through the next few days because of the warm support of friends and our many prayers, and Ann invited our mom to come live with her. Having no children, Ann had extra room, and she and Mom got along so well, like best friends.
We moved Mom in with my sister in the middle of October, and life returned to normal-that is, as normal as was possible. When things come apart, they do come back together, slowly, but never as they were before.
Death never leaves you as it finds you; it changes your perspective, forcing you to realize how temporary everything is in life.
After her husband passed away, Ann taught me a lesson about death. "That was our last vacation together," she said. "It was our last dinner, our last laugh, our last kiss and hug. Fifty-one years old, and John is dead. I wish I had known it would be the last time I would see him."
Death does that-challenges us not to take each other for granted, reminds us to say "I love you" right now. Show your loved ones how much you care with a hug or a kiss-now. At the funeral home, it will be too late.
We made it through the holidays that year, and then, on January 1, 2002, my sister called me to tell me she'd had to take Mom to the hospital. She'd been having difficultly breathing.
When I arrived at the emergency room, our family doctor told me things didn't look good. Mom's heart was enlarged, and a valve was leaking, which had sent her into heart failure. The only solution would be a heart valve replacement, which was risky because her heart muscle wasn't strong.
We sat with her in her hospital room and talked about her options. She decided to have the surgery. She couldn't go on like this, and she thought the surgery would improve the quality of her life. She was scheduled for surgery the following Wednesday.
That morning, my sister kissed my mom before she left for the surgery, saying, "I'll see you in a few hours."
On the way down to the Operating Room, I could see tears rolling down Mom's face. She held my hand tightly and smiled. When we arrived at the OR, I prayed and gave her a kiss. She pulled me forward and said, "No matter what happens to me, Joe, please take care of your sister." I told her I would. She squeezed my hand and smiled.
A priest for over twenty-five years, I've spent time with many people who were dying. On their deathbeds, people never say, "Take care of my stocks and bonds. Take care of my house and car." No, their last thoughts are about the people in their lives: "Take care of your mother. Look in on your father and make sure he eats. Take care of your sister."
The doctors were running late that day, so it wasn't until 8:30 in the evening that the nurse came and said, "Father, would you and your sister please come with me? The doctor wants to speak with you."
With all sorts of thoughts racing through my mind, we followed the nurse to a private area. The doctor who had performed Mom's surgery five years ago came out and said, "I'm sorry. Your mom's heart stopped, and it just won't start again. We did everything we could. I'm so sorry."
I grabbed my sister, and we stood there in absolute shock, both of us thinking the same thing: "Is this a bad dream?"
Death has an unreality about it. You think you're going to wake up and everything is going to be as it was before, but it just isn't true. Death is final.
After about an hour, we were able to go into the recovery room and see our mom. My sister rested her head on our mom's chest and began to cry, saying, "Mommy, please wake up. Talk to me, Mommy. Please, Mommy, please Mommy, wake up." After some time, I hugged my sister, and then I hugged Mom, and we left the hospital like two walking zombies.
In a few months, it will be six years since John and Mom died, and life is moving along. I'm continuing to minister as a priest, and my sister is working as a nurse's aide at a local nursing home.
We learned that life can be messy at times and that, without those we love, death can make our lives feel empty. Yet we also learned how valuable we are to one another and how wrong it is to miss any opportunity to express your love.
More than anything else, Ann and I both wished we'd said goodbye to Mom. Although I know I will see Dad, John and Mom again, death still hurts. It robs us of memories, leaving us to crave more time with our loved one-just one more day, another hour, a few more minutes.
Death opens our eyes, showing us that the only time that matters is right now. Death teaches us a simple lesson: Forget about yesterday-it's over-and tomorrow may never come, but we haven't seen today before, so live it as well as you possibly can.
Stop putting things off.
The only people who should be afraid of death are those who haven't lived, those who say, "I'll do it when I get around to it," "I tell him I love him tomorrow." If you don't live today, your "tomorrows" will to run out.
Live life now, tell people now, when their eyes are open, "I love you."
Tomorrow it might be too late.
Copyright © 2007 Joe Sica
A storyteller and motivational speaker, (Father) Joe Sica is a priest and hospital chaplain from Scranton, PA. His most recent book, Embracing Change: 10 Ways to Grow Spiritually and Emotionally, is available at Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere.