We sit, we drink coffee together, sometimes there are tears, other times there is laughter. All this is in the shadow of death that is crouching in the small room, its potent presence growing by the day.
I am no stranger to death—I have lost too many good friends to a sudden tragic death, sat by the bedside of a dear woman wasted by cancer, and commemorated all my grandparents’ lives.
But this is a vulnerable dying. There is no hospital, no hospice, no tubes or machines. She is an old woman, lying on a bed, in the fading twilight moments of her life.
Somehow, without the mediation of doctors, nurses, and machines, this dying feels raw, naked, and there is nothing to soften the reality of what must happen. Nobody is trying to sustain her life, a thought that crossed my mind several times in the last month after she had a fall that changed everything.
I can see this is a different cultural approach to death—my culture tries to sustain life until the last possible second, even if the individual is very old. This culture seems to say—she has lived to a ripe old age, and now is her time to go.
And so we wait—neighbors come by with food and to check in. There is a steady stream of family visitors on a daily basis, most of them elderly themselves. They come with no agenda except for to be…to sit and drink coffee….and to be. I understand the ministry of “presence” in a much deeper way now. It is part and parcel of the communal aspect of the Croatian culture. Although there is an acceptance of death’s inevitability, it is not a solitary journey for someone to travel. Others join you, waiting without agenda or platitudes…and they will never leave you alone.
The other day, I was alone with R., the daughter of the woman dying, who is the sole caregiver to her mother. The only break she gets is at night when her brother comes to stay in the house and she sleeps over at the neighbors. R. is a warmhearted and stubbornly proud woman, but waiting for death makes everyone vulnerable. She spoke to me about her very hard childhood—her father died when she was 3 and they were extremely poor, not having indoor plumbing and frequently being hungry. Her mother, as she said it, was a very strict and religious woman.
R.’s eyes fill with tears—she is now mother to her mother, and over the past month has seen many difficulties as her mother passed through an aggressive and hostile stage, the dementia getting worse and worse, and now slowly fading away in the dreams of heavy sleep.
This morning there were three of us drinking coffee and we were laughing over silly stories. But in the back of my throat I could feel the heaviness of death, the sadness of a life passing, the struggle to accept the fragility and brevity of the human life on this earth.
I wait for the LORD, my soul does wait, And in His word do I hope. My soul waits for the Lord, More than the watchmen for the morning; Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the LORD; for with the LORD there is loving-kindness, and with Him is abundant redemption. Psalm 130: 5-7