My dad died on the Fourth of July. Tired of his losing battle against congestive heart failure and kidney failure, he had decided on July 2 to stop his thrice weekly dialysis treatments. The hospice people came to the house and set him up with a hospital bed, a sweet and caring nurse, and a prescription for morphine. My five siblings and our families began to gather, believing my dad had a week or so to live. My parents' home was full of kids and noise again.
On the morning of the Fourth, however, only a few of us were in the house when Father Mac, a family friend, appeared at the door. My dad had been in a deep sleep from about midnight the night before. Father Mac had come to give my dad the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, which turned out to be the more aptly named Last Rites. My sister and her husband, my mom, my youngest daughter, and I were the only ones in the house. At Father Mac's invitation, we formed a circle around my dad's bed and prayed together. Father Mac anointed my dad's forehead and gave him absolution.
My youngest daughter, at 17, had recently followed in the footsteps of her three older sisters and had stopped going to Mass regularly after being confirmed. But participating in the last rites for her grandpa resonated deeply with her. "Isn't it weird, Mom," she said later, "that when Father Mac got here, only the practicing Catholics were in the house?" She meant that the family atheists were not in the other room, making the usual disparaging comments about weak people who needed to lean on the crutch of religion. It seemed that as soon as Father Mac left, the house again filled with people who would not have wanted to join in prayer. We'd been given a moment in God's pure presence.
My dad never regained consciousness. We took turns sitting with him, talking to him, telling him about the kids splashing in the pool and the schedule for fireworks. The hospice nurse had told us that even if he wasn't responsive, he might still hear us. So we talked. He seemed to be resting peacefully, without the groans and grimaces and strange syllables that had punctuated his sleep for the last few months. Around 6 p.m., he stopped breathing. He exhaled, and just never inhaled.
On the following Sunday, my daughter said, "I kind of want to go to Mass with you." Just like that. And it occurred to me that, in the midst of crippling sadness and mourning, a small light was shining, in my daughter's gentle conversion of heart. My dad had gone home. And maybe she has, too.
Death's Small Gift