Waiting for the end

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Dying can be like watching a house slowly come down around you. When it will finally fall, no one knows.

By guest blogger Lisa Calderone-Stewart

Bishop Ken Untener (1937-2004) was a friend of mine; I got to know him well when I was a youth minister in the Diocese of Saginaw, from 1986-1991.

His dad died when he was 38; I lost mine when I was 25. For both of us, it was the first death of a close family member; we both managed to live well into adulthood before experiencing that pain, which is a blessing many people don’t receive.

Ken talked about the prayer and support at his dad’s wake service; he said with certain people, he could tell right away that they knew. There seemed to be an echo of the same song in them… because they had also lost someone close. He said they were the ones who usually said the least, but looked into his eyes the longest.

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One of my friends, Alice C, has lost more than one person very close to her; in fact, she took care of a dying friend for two years when nobody else (not even his family) was willing to do it. They spent all of his money, and some of hers as well, because he lived longer than his doctors predicted. It was a very difficult time, emotionally, financially, and otherwise, since she knew nothing of what it meant to be a power of attorney. The paperwork was overwhelming, but they got through it.

She talks about one night when the two of them had made a delicious spaghetti meal, which they were both looking forward to eating. She said they knew that dying was up ahead of them, somewhere in the near future. But “tonight, there was only spaghetti.”

Isn’t this the perfect description of living one day at a time?

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Alice’s greatest gift to me is listening to what I say and finding ways to capture my thoughts and feelings in almost poetic terms. I always feel so affirmed and understood. Not too long ago, she emailed these words to me:

“How do you live in a body that is dying? This is the ultimate paradox of existence; we are body/spirit, we are both/and. Yet at some point, the body starts dying and the spirit goes on just the same. Living in a dying house, as it were. We become inhabited by the rivals of death and life, each vying for the same fragile, crumbling territory…

We know all the things our church teaches about what happens eternally, posthumously, beyond the door of that final moment we count on the clock. But how do we live until then, in the reality of a dying shelter? Which is the only address we’ve ever possessed, and we’ve been rather fond of it all these years, by the way. And yes, we’ve always been dying, so there’s nothing new about actively dying that wasn’t true since the day we were born, but this feels very, very different…”

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In two paragraphs, she painted the perfect picture of how I feel; living in a dying shelter, soul and body in the same space – that crumbling, fragile, physical territory I have become.        

That image is so vivid, you can easily picture it. The pipes aren’t working right, the ceiling is caving in, the heating and cooling system is busted, and making repairs is impossible. But I can’t leave my house. I’m stuck here until the place completely falls apart… and then what? Am I homeless? It might seem so, but faith tells us a new home is waiting, a new cosmic address.

And yes, that future cosmic address sounds great, but I can’t move there when I want to. I have to wait until my ride shows up. And in the meantime, I have to figure out how best to survive in this ever-worsening “fixer upper” that can’t be fixed up.

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I guess the medical “home maintenance” folks expected my shelter to collapse long ago, but the great Architect/Master Builder is the only one who knows how much longer it will continue to stand.

Sometimes, when a house starts falling apart, the whole neighborhood is affected. When property values go down, people start moving away, and the area looks deserted. Who wants to be associated with that sort of wreckage?

Not in my neighborhood – I am so blessed by my neighbors. Instead of running away, they are rallying around me, holding block parties! That’s what continues to sustain me; they just keep celebrating with me.

Eventually, this old house will come crashing down… but tonight… there is only spaghetti!

 


Guest blogger Lisa Calderone-Stewart is the director of Tomorrow's Present and an author and speaker on youth leadership. Read more about her interfaith youth program in Student Teachers, from January 2006.

Lisa was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year. For more on her story, see "The dying wish of a youth ministry pioneer." You can also read Lisa's personal blog Dying to Know You Better, and she has a novel, Made To Write. An archive of her blog posts on USCatholic.org can be found at Final Thoughts.

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.