A $20 bill was their sacrificial offering
7th October 2013 · 0 Comments
By Fr. Jerome LeDoux
By rule of thumb, the most urgent sick calls are those prefaced with, “We have called all over and we cannot find a priest to come and administer the final rites!”
No deathbed scene is pleasant, but sometimes it is quite poignant and at times it is heartrending and forlorn. It is unquestionably the moment when we poor humans are at our lowest point in life, embarrassed by our appearance and helplessness, and thoroughly disgraced by our impending temporal destruction by disease, trauma and encroaching age.
Admit it or not, God made us social beings, so that we need each other to make our life livable, tolerable, fulfilled and even pleasant. This is true throughout our life, but at no time nearly so much as in the moments leading up to our final departure from this world.
One such desperate sick call summoned me to a nursing home several months ago. Unable to contain their anxiety, two of the men were on the lookout for me outside in the parking lot. Spying me from afar, they hastened to usher me in to their mother.
Under such circumstances, it is highly significant that anyone’s mother becomes our own mother in our imagings and feelings. Her eyes full of anxiety, fright and foreboding, the dear lady was piteously half-shriveled and partway into the process of the death rattle. She seemingly viewed me as the unwelcome harbinger of the unknown beyond the grave.
With a reverent nod of deep respect for her and her family, I approached with what I hoped would be the comforting appearance of the Roman collar and clerical attire.
“As we read in the letter of James, chapter 5, verses 14-15,” I began as soon as all had gathered close together, “’Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the church, and they should pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins, he will be forgiven.’”
Because the lady was already in the initial throes of the death rattle, there was no way for her to receive Communion, which in the case of imminent death is called Viaticum, the astoundingly wondrous word that derives from the Latin “via tecum,” the way with you, meaning Jesus — the final way with Jesus on earth through his presence in the Eucharist.
After some personal prayers for the dear lady, invoking her brother Jesus, St. Michael the Archangel and all the saints, I prayed with and for her family, realizing that all of us are reduced to one extended family of believers clinging to each other at a riveting time like this. We are all looking for someone to lead us in this final dance from here to eternity.
With a final blessing in the name of the Most Blessed Trinity, I once more reverenced the beloved mother and her family, then turned to take leave of them. His face full of pain and emotion, a son pressed a $20 bill into my right hand. I offered light resistance until it was obvious that this was something he had to do as a sign of his and the family’s gratitude.
Although I understood the imperative gratitude in the son’s heart, the last thing I wanted to receive from him or anyone there was that $20 bill. I felt guilty for receiving any recompense for what I was impelled to do as a fellow human and Christian believer, let alone as an ambassador of Christ driven by duty and privilege to walk hand in hand with the dying.
As if to imprint that lesson indelibly in my own awareness and value system, I placed the $20 bill in full view on my nightstand next to my bed and kept it there until very recently.
The death experience never grows old. If anything, the breathtaking awe from my early days of youth has been enhanced and magnified with the passage of the decades. With a heavy heart, as if this were happening for the first time, I turned away, leaving some part of me there with that suffering family. My misty eyes told a story that scarcely ever changes.
“We have called all over and could not get a priest to come and give the sacrament of the sick.” There was that plea again a half hour before midnight. This time it was our newest OMM medical doctor, Mike Leasure, calling me. “I will gladly come, Mike, but you will have to pick me up, for I am not yet driving since the exploratory surgery on my left eye.”
Even though this somewhat younger lady had obviously neglected her health and had given up her fight to live, anointing of the sick, Viaticum and a dose of somewhat prolonged attention turned the tide and her attitude in favor of thanking God and wanting to live.
This article originally published in the October 7, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.