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hillsWhen we are in the midst of trouble, whether it is illness or the death of a friend, it can be hard not to focus on our agony and our worries.  I tend to hold my pain close, too close to focus on it but also not letting it go. Fortunately, my husband is better at looking into the distance.

My friend died last Friday and although we had plans to go eagle watching, I wanted to cancel. Wouldn’t it be disrespectful? Staying home sounded really good.

My husband took me along when we dropped our son off at his friend’s, but we didn’t turn toward home.  Instead, we drove through the bottoms and between the rivers. We ended up at a historic fort for . . . can you guess? . . . eagle watching.

We stood on the bluff top in the icy wind and gazed up and down the river.  Geese.  A duck.  Song birds. Conservation agents with spotting scopes peered up and down the nearby riverbank.

Then my husband squinted into the distance. He’d caught sight of long, dark wings. He looked through our binoculars. An eagle! It perched in a tree, all but disappearing from sight. We watched the eagle for an hour, periodically scanning the trees for other telltale signs – white heads and flashes of white tails. Each time we looked back, there was our eagle, perched in the distance.

When we went to the wake, we looked at the pictures of our friend rafting, hiking, and at the Grand Canyon. Out in God’s world, sharing what she loved with those she loved.

Finding God and what is good when times are tough can be tricky. Close at hand, you may not be able to see anything but heartache.  But He is it out there, in the distance. All you have to do is spot Him.


The news I received this morning demolished all possibility of the post I was going to write: My friend Mary is dying. I heard it straight from her daughter Tracy, one of two foster children Mary raised and later adopted. She was a “single mother,” in her own inimitable fashion. Mary never wanted to get married. She is too feisty for that, too independent, too…Irish.

I met Mary at church. She walked right up to my husband and me (we’re not the most social types), introduced herself and started talking, drawing us out. Why? I’ll never know. Pretty soon, we were meeting for dinner after Mass, on the regular, chatting on the phone about our cats (she has several, all strays, like ours were) and life and her ever-expanding rock collection. Mary’s a storyteller; you can’t help but admire her gift of gab. It’s a gift I lack, and appreciate in others. Mary has it in spades.

It seems like just a few days ago — and it was — that we were last talking on the phone, making plans for a long overdue dinner together (the holidays had gotten in the way). She was regaling me with the tale of how she foiled a break-in at her house. She’d been sleeping when someone broke her bedroom window. I was aghast, terrified just listening to the story. “Oh, don’t worry,” Mary said. “I sleep with a gun under my pillow.”

Mary may be petite, but she’s no delicate flower. It took cancer to knock her down — suddenly, and with great ferocity. The results of her biopsy aren’t even in yet, but she is fading fast. I want to be there with her, but I am battling an upper respiratory infection (again). Her daughter told my husband that her hospital room is like “Grand Central Station.” Everybody knows Mary and loves her. Her flow of visitors bears that out.

A light is going out of this world with Mary. It’s the kind of light that turns a group of parishioners into a family. This sort of light is badly needed in the Church now — in all churches. Young people are turning away from religion, not finding what they need there. Maybe if they could meet someone like Mary, a Catholic through and through, living by example what the Church teaches, they would begin to see that their faith can find a home.

Maybe one day I’ll be inspired to walk up to a couple of newcomers at church, introduce myself and invite them out to dinner. Mary would like that, I think.



Last week, I pondered the appropriate response of someone of faith to death and dying. I received some wonderful advice (especially from Debbie —, but I felt I needed to keep searching. And it hit me. Of course we know how a person of faith should face mortality: We have the ultimate role model — Jesus.

Jesus certainly had to deal with death and dying, and from Him we can draw some important lessons that just might serve us well. To wit:

  1. It’s okay to be sad. When Jesus’ friend Lazarus died, Jesus reacted in the most human of ways: He wept. Despite the fact that He, more than anyone on Earth, knew what awaited His friend in the afterlife, He wept. And then He did something else — He raised His friend from the dead. Think about it. It is a response so human, so shortsighted (what if Lazarus was happy on the other side?), so nearly selfish, it tells us everything we need to know about mourning: It’s okay. It’s natural. There is no shame in it, no matter how we express it.
  2. It’s also okay to be scared. Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, reflected on His own upcoming torture and death, and He was scared. Terrified, in fact. He knew that in three days He would rise, never to experience pain again, but facing the end of His life, He was rightly afraid. Rightly, because it was going to hurt. It was going to be humiliating and wrenching and terrible. Guess what? You’re allowed to not want to experience those things. You’re allowed to be afraid of dying. Jesus was. And we can hardly be expected to be better, or more enlightened, than He.
  3. A better place is waiting, even if we’re not perfect. I have always derived great comfort from Jesus’ conversation with the thief on the cross next to His. The nameless thief doesn’t renounce his former life or confess all of his sins (which may have been many); he just comments to Christ that while he (the thief) deserves what he’s getting, Jesus does not. And Jesus tells the thief the most reassuring thing in the world: “This day you shall be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23: 43) How’s that for forgiveness, for generosity, for compassion? There can be no greater thread of hope to cling to than those nine words. Sinner that I am, will God not show me the same regard? Will He not show us all the same regard?
  4. All we have to do is the hardest thing: Believe. When Jesus tells the parable of poor Lazarus (not to be confused with his friend, brother of Martha and Mary) and the rich man, He gives away a most telling clue. The rich man, having neglected to take care of poor Lazarus and having wasted his life on wine, women and song, is relegated to Hell. He attempts one last bid: “I beg of you, send him [Lazarus] to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him testify to them so they will not also come into this place of torments.” (Luke 16: 27-28) But his bid is refused. Nobody gets warning. On the flip side, no one gets (debatable near-death experiences aside) absolute proof from the other side that the other side exists. We have to believe blindly, hope in darkness. That’s the conundrum. That’s what makes it so hard to be human. It is truly the work of a lifetime. But at least we have a role model.

Our friend is dying. None of us talks about it. We say things like, “You look great bald! Like Jean-Luc Picard!” or “So glad your doctor is going to try to remove the tumor,” even though it’s clear that this is a last-ditch effort. Now, I can’t say what all of our spiritual beliefs are; I can only speak for myself. I believe in Heaven, that the next life is the one we’ve been hoping and praying for. So why do I — and so many of us who claim to be believers — have such a dim view of death?

Can you imagine saying to a terminally ill person, “You’re so lucky to be dying! Congratulations!” You’d be instantly ostracized, an immediate pariah. What a horrible thing to say! We want people to live. Yes, partly because we are selfish and don’t want to lose them from our lives. But also because dying is bad. Dying is the worst thing that can happen to you. It is our greatest fear.

And yet, we claim to be believers! We want to be with God forever. So where does the disconnect lie? How can we say out of one side of our mouths, “Deliver us, Oh Lord, into Your hands,” while muttering out of the other side, “I don’t want to die!”? After all, Heaven is forever. There is no death there. You just have to do it once.

Is it the unknown that frightens us, like a child in the dark who imagines the curtains have grown clawed, grasping hands? But we are people of faith. The afterlife is not supposed to be unknown to us, not if we really believe. So maybe it’s our lack of faith that’s the problem?

All I know is that no one is ready to lose our friend. Even though I feel certain that he will be going to a better place, I am sad. So, I ask you: How should a spiritual person behave in the face of death?


Have a Mary Little Christmas

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