I have come to realize that while I have often thought about dying, I have never really given any thought to the people who might be around me at that momentous transition in life. Of course, any of us could die instantaneously with a heart attack or even an accident of some kind. But I also know from experience that many people take a significant amount of time in the dying process. For example, folks in a Hospice situation have chosen a particularly good way to die.
To acknowledge I have thought about dying is simply to accept my own mortality. No one has ever told me I am dying of cancer or the like, but at my age and stage I know the inevitability of it. And hopefully, I am ok with the process---knowing I can’t change it anyway. I am not morbid nor am I naïve about it. And I often have confessed that I can’t imagine living in this body in this world forever. I think that would be too long!
But I also realize I have not thought about the people who might surround me at this time. That was before I read the very interesting article about Arnold Palmer, famous golfer, who recently died. Of course, I have known about “Arnie” for a long time. But I did not know anything about him except he played golf. I did know he was from Latrobe, PA and I have been to Latrobe.
When reading about Palmer’s death, I was a little surprised to run across an article entitled, “Benedictine abbot was at golf’s legend bedside when he died.” I read on with some real interest, since I am a Benedictine oblate, which means I am affiliated with a Benedictine monastery as a kind of lay member. As I read, I learned that the Archabbot of the St. Vincent Benedictine Monastery in Latrobe, Douglas Nowicki, was at Palmer’s bedside when he died.
I have been to the monastery in Latrobe. In fact the Benedictine monks of that monastery begin and still run St. Vincent’s College and I have been on campus. Indeed, I have seen Archabbot Nowicki, but obviously had no clue about his connection with Arnie. So I would never have known the Archabbot and Arnie were old buddies. I learned that Palmer and his wife were Presbyterians. But they liked to go to the campus and attend mass at the Archabbey that dominates that bucolic campus in western Pennsylvania. Arnie had been a member of the College’s Board of Trustees and had received an honorary degree from that institution.
I learned that Arnie’s relationship with the Archabbey and his friendship with Nowicki goes back fifty years to the time the Archabbot was in high school there. In an interview Nowicki said, “I went to say a prayer and give him a blessing.” After only a short time, the Archabbot was informed Palmer’s condition was quickly worsening and he soon died. The article I read did not offer more details about the end of Arnie’s life, but that did not matter. It made me think about that eventuality in my own life.
I would expect to be surrounded by family. That might be a given for most of us. And that is probably the only predictable group that we would expect to be around the bedside. The next circle of people might be our closet friends. I certainly have some close friends I would welcome if I were on my deathbed. To share that moment with someone close to you would be as special as anything I could imagine.
I have done a fair amount of bedside ministry. I know what it is like to hold someone’s hand, to pray for someone, to be a presence without words and even more. I have tried to be a spiritual presence for many folks. In fact, I am confident there were times I was a stand-in for God. I am sure that must be some of what Archabbot Nowicki did with and for Arnold Palmer. Whatever prayer he offered would have surely been received by God And whatever blessing was given to Arnie would have been the most sacred thing Arnie could have hoped.
I suppose it is true that finally each of us dies alone. When that moment comes, we will leave the earth in this form and those around our bedside will get up, to out and ultimately resume their lives. But I now know---upon reflecting on it---that the deathbed presence that can come with family, friends and even Benedictine Archabbots is a wonderful thing.
I would welcome and can hope that I have family, friends, a priest, and a Quaker to surround me and bless me and be a blessing to me during that transition. I realize a deathbed presence has so much power that is sadly lacking if we have only deathbed absence. I think it would be a wonder and a blessing to pass from the love of friends around the bed into the love of God that will take us fully and totally into the Divine bosom.
We will go alone, but we never will be alone. The deathbed presence is a fitting symbol to the life-giving Divine Presence that is the fate of everyone.