There’s an old 16th-century prayer that ran through my head on Saturday as I was headed up to Connecticut to see the father of a dear friend who is in hospice care:
God be in my head, and in my understanding. God be in mine eyes, and in my looking. God be in my mouth, and in my speaking. God be in my heart, and in my thinking. God be at mine end, and at my departing.
That last line in particular lingered with me. So often a departing is a moment in a hospital with beeping machines and medical staff circulating, but here, in this situation, the family had been fortunate to be able to make a decision, advised by their doctors, to bring their loved one home to the retirement community where he’s lived for the past half-dozen years. He was in a room in the health center receiving only palliative care.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Would he be conscious? Would a visit be welcome? Would I be intruding? At 86 years old, he has, in his own words, “had a good run of it.” He was asleep when I arrived, but his children and grandchildren were nearby. “He says he’s ready,” they told me. His wife, their mom, had died 26 years earlier. He was looking forward to seeing her again, they said. What I sensed was how hard this was for them.
Sing, came the brazen thought. “Does he have a favorite song?” I asked his kids. He was opening his eyes now.
“Danny Boy,” they said uniformly. “He told us that’s what he wants sung at his memorial.”
“Maybe we should sing it now,” I suggested, although it is such a weeper. Would I even remember the words? “Let’s try it.”
His grandson and I moved over to the bed, talked to him—his voice so weak and soft but all the sweetness of his personality there. He looked like a young boy in bed, hardly a wrinkle on his forehead. His grandson and I began, “Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling…” the two of us helping each other with the words. I didn’t dare look at the others for fear I would cry. You can’t really sing when you’re crying.
I looked down at him. He mouthed every word, his voice frail but right in tune, the music filling the room. “And I’ll be there in sunshine or in shadow…” we could sing and it seemed a message for all of us, here in the sunshine and shadows at the end of a good life, one lived in faith, hope, love and great kindness. Oh, how he would be missed, but oh, how fortunate we all felt to be able to tell him so.
Finally we finished. It wasn’t a great performance, but it was perfect. He opened his mouth again. He wanted to say something. We bent down to listen more closely. “So far,” he said very slowly. “So far, dying isn’t so bad.” We all smiled—OK, we were also wiping tears off of cheeks. So far. So far. God was here with all of us, at this end, at this departing.