Well, it didn't exactly come for me...but it sure called after me today.
It all started around noon-time. I had just finished a busy morning filled with phone calls, e-mails, and meetings...it just felt hectic. So I meandered into the rectory kitchen to prepare myself a little lunch...a nice piece of salmon and a bit of rice that I was cooking in my rice cooker. No sooner had I pressed the "on" button when along comes our secretary telling me that there's a patient at the nursing home who's not going to make it. She said, "I told them that you'll be there after lunch." I thought for a moment...it was tempting. I was tired and hungry, I really needed a little rest...but there was no way I was going to sit down and eat lunch knowing that someone was actively dying across town waiting for the priest. So I stopped the salmon, grabbed my oils, obtained the Blessed Sacrament, and soon I was on my way.
When I arrived at the nursing home I discovered an elderly woman who was sedated, but definitely having trouble breathing. To her right, sitting by her bed and holding her hand, was her sister...to her left, a family friend caressing her arm. I introduced myself and the icy-blank look on their eyes, the kind of look you're only capable of in the midst of intense grief, gave way to a flood of tears. The priest had arrived, and they knew what that meant...the Last Rites.
I embraced each of the women by the bedside, telling them how sorry I was. It's cliche, but there really are no words. I fumbled my way up near the head of the dying woman, opened my sick call kit, put my stole on, took a deep breath, and began. I offered her absolution and the Apostolic Pardon, I anointed her, and then I prayed the prayers for the commendation of the dying. I laid my priestly hands on her dear head and prayed with every fiber of my being that the Lord would take this beautiful soul to Himself. How I wish that she would have been able to receive Holy Viaticum, her Lord in Holy Communion as food for her journey, but she was simply too sedated. So I did all that I could do, and it was powerful...it was heart-breaking...it was intense.
I took my stole off and once more embraced the two women keeping watch. I stayed with them for awhile...we continued praying and I gave them my blessing. Before I left I told them what a grace it was that their sister and friend would not die without the Sacraments and that the Lord was very near in this, her last hour. The nurse had said it would probably be a few hours yet, so I apologized that I was unable to keep watch with them and gave them my card and told them to call immediately when she enters into her last moments. They were grateful...not to me personally, but to Christ Who came to them in the person of His priest. I headed back to the rectory and finished my lunch, feeling a little heavy but also grateful that I could be there for that dear woman and her family.
And that's when the next call came...
This time no one was dying...death, that villainous fiend, had already struck. A woman at the hospital in Presque Isle breathed her last, rather unexpectedly, and she and I had a history. She had been diagnosed with cancer a few weeks back...there was nothing they could do for her because it was so far progressed, and so they gave her about 2 years left. She called the rectory after this in the hopes of being anointed. Right before I headed off for the ACTS retreat, she and I scheduled a time...when I returned from the retreat, I would immediately head over to her home, anoint her, and give her Holy Communion. When I returned from retreat, however, I got a message...she had been taken to the hospital and was in the ICU.
I rushed to the hospital, not knowing what was going on. She was more or less fine just a couple days prior...riddled with cancer, yes, but not close to death by any means. When I got to her room I found her sitting up in bed and in good spirits. Thank God. But why the hospital? Why the ICU? It was pneumonia. She told me that everything was under control and that she'd probably be going home in the next couple of days. This was great news, but given the severity of her overall condition I did not hesitate to anoint her. And then I gave her Holy Communion. She was so happy and so at peace, neither of us thought that she had just received Viaticum, her last Sacrament.
Late this morning death came for her...out of no where. She was still in ICU, but then rushed to the ER. The doctors couldn't save her...she was gone. And so the phone rang and the secretary gave me the bad news. We called up the hospital to see if the family was still there, but they were not. So I decided to go over to the hospital to attend to the body of my new friend. Security brought me down to the morgue and pulled her lifeless body out of the cooling unit. There she was, before my eyes. Days ago she was talking about how she was going to spend her final years. Sewing, she said, and being with her family. But no more. For the second time that day I breathed deeply, put my stole on, and pulled out my ritual book, this time offering prayers for the dead. I blessed her body, sprinkled it with holy water, and then left that sad room.
I wept back upstairs and headed to the front desk...I figured that, as long as I was at the hospital, I might as well visit some of the patients. I got the list from the receptionist of newly-admitted Catholic patients, and spent the next hour absolving and anointing the sick. Again, it was powerful, heart-breaking, and intense.
When I got back to the car, I noticed that I had a missed call. I didn't even have to check...I knew what it was. Death had come again. The woman I had ministered to this morning was gone.
I went back to the nursing home to find a devastated woman clinging onto the lifeless hand of her sister. I held back the tears I wanted to shed for her, walked into the room and embraced her once again. I had only met this woman this morning, and yet it seemed like we had known each other all our lives. And, in a sense, we had...because it wasn't just me that embraced her, it wasn't just me that had come to tend to her and her sister, it was Christ. I knew that and she knew that.
I went to the head of the bed and again put on my stole. Another body to bless. Another soul to pray for. More grief to comfort. More tears to wipe away.
When I got back to the rectory my soul was heavy and burdened. I unloaded before the tabernacle, desperate for our Lord to come to the aid of His people. After some moments of prayer, I came back into the house and noticed that it was dinner time. An entire afternoon had been spent journeying back and forth through the valley of death. Death came for the Curate of Caribou today...it came and made its claim on two beautiful people. But it is not death that gets the final word, it is Christ Himself. It has no victory...it has been robbed of its sting. Christ has conquered it. Deo gratias.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. And may their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.