At 4 am, my lights start flashing, and someone is telling me to get up and call my brother-in-law. I stumble over to the nearest phone and dial. I dial and then he answers. “Your mom had an aneurysm.” I realize that must be serious – you wouldn’t wake me up at 4 am if it wasn’t – but in my nighttime stupor I have no idea what it is.
I turn to the brother who woke me up. He says he will get the brother who knows about flights and has our credit card and they will see what they can do while I shower. As we are filling out the last details, I see the brother who was supposed to assist me on a big project that week on his way into morning prayers, “My mom will likely die in the next 24 hours; I have to go back to Calgary; you’re on your own.”
Then I went through a long series going through airports and airplanes; I managed to get home only 20 hours after I was woken up (Rome to Calgary – 12 hours on a plane, 3 hours in Rome and Frankfurt Airports plus driving, packing, etc.). It was probably the longest 20 hours in my life: my mom could die during the night and then she had 5-hour emergency surgery first thing in the morning and could die on the operating table.
I needed to confront death face-to-face. She may be gone when I arrive. The only other people I had known who died, did so when they were old after an illness that slowly got worse. Here we never got the opportunity to say goodbye. Just imagine if your last words to your mom were “Thanks for explaining how to cook meatloaf.”
I tried reading to distract me. The first thing I had was the last chapter of the Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Bilbo come to take their final voyage to Tol Eressëa (the isle of the blessed where all ring bearers go) and Sam returns home to a happy family. I was glad I had an empty row as I just broke down and cried – maybe my mom was already there.
I missed her so I cried in sadness; I knew where she was going if she had reached the other side so I cried in happiness. Confronting death, few things matter.
I needed to get back to comfort dad and my sisters. I needed their comfort too.
My mom was in just about perfect health for her age: she would walk a mile every few days, she drank herbal tea and ate healthy. Later I checked online and 20% who have a burst aneurysm die before they arrive at the hospital and the rate of death seems about 50% for the first month. Of the survivors, half have permanent serious brain damage. My mom is in the lucky 20% who recover almost completely.
Death is a mystery. We can’t explain it but I think as Catholics, we can see beyond it. Death opens a door to fuller life.