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Standing at my mother-in-law’s deathbed, I had a glimpse of heaven


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Katie Pyles - published on 09/16/20

A reflection on death, life, and God's thirst for each one of us.

Three months before I married my husband Alex, we were sitting vigil for his mother while she died. She had battled multiple sclerosis for over 20 years, and she was tired. When the neighbor called to tell us Anna was in a hospice center, we scraped together our meager savings and flew from Ohio to Florida to be with her as she passed. We hadn’t planned on her dying; we were not prepared. We were content with the distance and her illness; we thought we had more time.

We sat with her in turns. Alex’s brother Nicholas has special needs, and we had his mom’s estate to settle, so we split our time between her hospice room and her house. While Alex worked on preparing Nicholas for their mother’s passing, and I sat quietly with Anna, chatting with her about the rain, my books, our upcoming wedding, and our plans for Nicholas. She did not respond.

On the last day of his mom’s earthly life, Alex became restless. He was unable to stay in her room, and instead paced the gardens outside. He reminded me that it was time for us to leave, that we were out of money and days off of work. We both knew his mom would prefer things be set in place regarding caring for Nicholas. I wanted to stay, because Anna began smiling. She was unresponsive the entire time we were there, except for that morning when we walked into the room to find her staring vacantly out of her window, grinning. She smiled big, hard, and toothless, for 12 hours. Her body radiated joy.

“She’s smiling!” I said to Alex. “She’s smiling. Let’s stay.” I wanted to be with her as she moved into eternal life. From the ferocity of her joy, I knew she would pass right into the arms of Jesus, all suffering aside. I wanted to be there.

SAINT Francis Caracciolo

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Alex left the room to arrange our flights. When your mama is dying, you get to call the shots, I’ve learned. I held Anna’s hand, murmuring our plans for Nicholas to her. I didn’t want her to worry. I gazed down at her lovely face, her glorious grin, and in that moment, the Lord peeled back a corner of the Veil.

I felt it. I felt it so close, I couldn’t contain myself. I shouted, and wept, and shook with grief. Not for Anna, who would leave us that evening, but for myself. I wanted to go, too. I could feel Him there, so close, so gentle. I could feel all of Heaven, in between breaths. They waited for her, watching her with the same look of love.

I was so jealous. For the first time, I understand what Mother Teresa meant when she wrote about Jesus “thirsting” for us:

“I THIRST FOR YOU. Yes, that is the only way to even begin to describe My love for you … I THIRST FOR YOU. Open up to Me, come to Me, thirst for Me, give me your life. I will prove to you how important you are for My Heart.”

In that one moment, the Lord gave me a tiny portion of His Heart. Standing at my mother-in-law’s deathbed, in the late Florida afternoon sun, He gave me this truth: His thirst for you will give you life.

I could not join Anna in her passing, as much as my whole being yearned for Heaven with that truth ringing in my ears. My heart ached. My soul cried out in recognition of its true home. This dreary world, with its pain and wind and autoimmune disorders; its broken homes and broken bones; its cheap pleasures and earthly comforts … I wanted none of it. I wanted to go home, but I had to stay here. The ache was tender, incredible, and as unyielding as death.

Through this experience, Jesus taught me about a woman’s capacity to abide. It was the women who stayed with Jesus as He died. They stood beneath the Cross, with eyes wide open. They must have felt how very thin the veil was, too. As He spoke the words, “I thirst,” they must have felt it in their very bones. I felt His Thirst for my love 2,000 years later, as my mother-in-law lay dying. I feel it now, in this moment’s retelling.

Allowing myself to embrace the ache that comes with knowing where I truly belong has given me a heart-knowledge that is hard to describe. I know what it is to see death, in all its ugliness, and to keep my eyes open. I know what it is to glimpse the glory of Christ’s victory, and the love that motivated His Passion. His Thirst, and mine, have restored my life.

It’s true that we all will die, but right now, we must live with the heavy and glorious knowledge that Heaven is just a breath away. This is the important thing, I think: longing for Heaven must be felt. We must allow this thirst for our true home to grow in us. There is real pain in this world, but there is also real beauty. It is our sacred duty to hold these two things in tension. We must be like Mary at the foot of the Cross, contemplating her crucified Son. We must be like my mother-in-law Anna beholding the risen Son, and let the glory of God radiate through our broken bodies, lighting the way home.

And so, as you move through your days, weeks, years, carrying the weight of this messy, gory, beautiful Church on your shoulders, remember that this world is a broken place. It was never meant to be our home. When you find yourself at a loss for words, ground down by the monotony of sin, the astounding laziness of evil, remember this truth: you were created with the same stuff as the Theotokos, the Mother of God. You are capable of standing at the foot of the Cross, allowing the terror and pain to envelop you, but not consume you. Remember where you belong.

Until we can be home together, sweet friend, smiling wide into that sunset, I’ll meet you in the Eucharist.

[This article was adapted and republished with permission from The Catholic Woman.]


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