In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
So many people have asked so many questions about Anita’s death two weeks ago that I feel obliged to address some of them, not as a lachrymose indulgence in mourning but as a good and godly opportunity for learnings we can all use and apply ourselves, because her preparations for physical death were as positive as her life always was. We are all going to die to this mortal world – perhaps Anita and my preparations for this inevitability, preparations both worldly and spiritual, can be of help to you.
We knew for about two years that her recurrent severe attacks of atrial fibrillation, in which her heart rate would skyrocket to 240 beats a minute for hours at a time, these physically and emotionally devastating attacks could lead to an immediate heart attack or to congestive heart failure – which together killed her on D-Day, June 6. Many have said they were shocked because ‘she always looked so well’ – that’s because when she wasn’t well, you didn’t see her. Asked how she was doing, what could she say? “I’m ok for now, but I could die any minute?” That’s a conversation stopper you don’t want to hear.
So, we each and both did what we could to be prepared. Anita made me lists of whom to call to fix or service things at the house, what to feed each animal when, marked our big year calendar ahead for tax and other payment dates, heartworm and vet and farrier schedules, taught me the washing machine. Last summer we redid our wills and then went to see relatives in Germany – why not? Knowing you might die at any moment is no reason to sit at home sucking your thumb feeling sorry for yourself – quite the contrary, looking death squarely in the eye is all the more reason to enjoy life now, of course in moderate and godly ways – but to do this right we have to face death honestly, as did our ancestors in the Faith. If we coast along in denial of the fragility of mortal human life, or remain oblivious to it, we deny ourselves and those close to us the special poignant sweetness of life now. Awareness of death can keep life from being boring.
Like our 1928 Prayer Book Order for the Visitation of the Sick, both our public and family evening services ask God’s protection from “the perils and dangers of this night.” When our ancestors prayed “If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take,” they meant it – so should we. Do you read your Prayer Book, especially the parts you don’t hear in church? The rubric at the top of page 321, straight from 1549, beginsForasmuch as all mortal men are subject to many sudden perils, diseases, and sicknesses, and ever uncertain what time they shall depart out of this life; therefore, to the intent that they be always in readiness to die… the Ministers shall diligently from time to time… exhort their parishioners to the often receiving of the Holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ… that so doing, they may, in case of sudden visitation, have the less cause to be disquieted for lack of the same – an instruction firmly derived from Jesus’ words of promise we just heard from John 6:58, “he who eats this Bread shall live forever.”
Anita’s and my material preparations were simple: you write down a list, and it’s done. Our emotional preparations grew steadily richer and deeper: when every day you may be seeing one you love for the last time, you become more tender, more patient, more affectionate, more appreciative – as happened in our spiritual preparations, individually and together. She knew herself to be a sinner, in times past and in the present moment – I have no idea how many times I’ve sinned since I woke up this morning – but by the Grace of merciful God she knew herself to be a redeemed sinner, simul justus et peccator, simultaneously, at the same time, justified and a sinner. Her accurate self-assessment was a key to her faith: how often did she say in Bible class, “Miracles? No problem. If God can love me, He can do anything!” We prayed together, we read the Bible together, we talked about the Faith not as critics but as wonder-struck four-year-olds might stand awed, overwhelmed, and rejoice to see the wonders of Disney World for the first time. Her carefully-thought-through joy in the Lord was palpable.
Were we prepared for her death? Pretty well. Was I ready for it? You can’t be. I can’t tell whether I’m handling it well or whether I’m in shock. I hope the former.
April was a bad month: she managed Holy Week services and Easter, but the next Sunday she couldn’t make church or the Oatlands Brunch or our Loudoun Hunt Races, unheard-of absences indicating how badly she was feeling. On April 26 she began a new medical regimen, a digitalis prescription for heart and a diuretic for pulmonary edema, fluid around the lungs, which helped a lot. May was pretty good, but she went back to the cardiologist team she’d seen before. On May 28 she passed a stress test, low-end but acceptable; on June 4 an echocardiogram showed no change from three years before.
That very night, Friday, we enjoyed a dinner-dance with good friends at Oatlands Plantation – Saturday she had fun at the Purcellville Farmers’ Market – Sunday several people commented on how well she looked at 8 o’clock Holy Communion – that afternoon she bought some salmon at Lawry’s in Hamilton and cooked her usual excellent dinner – at 10 we said our prayers together as always, kneeling at bedside – the last words we said to one another, as we did whenever we parted even briefly, were “I love you.” We have next-door bedrooms because I snore, so she went to bed with her 1928 Prayer Book and I went down to the computer, tiptoeing upstairs around midnight.
Just after 8 I woke up and saw no sign of her usual 6 a.m. rising. I went into her room and her hand was cold as any stone – absolutely peaceful, sheets not disarranged, no sign of struggle – just her normal sleeping posture, obviously instantaneous, she never felt a thing – which is what she’d always hoped for, as I think we all do.
I believe that Anita was a good example in this life: a good woman, a great wife, energetic leader, generous caring friend, above all a devout believing and practicing Christian – and, I believe that she set a good example in her preparations for death to this world and her preparation for life in God’s world to come – may every one of us do the same,
in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.