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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Rendering Passing Honors...

Attribution Some rights reserved by Official U.S. Navy Imagery
 There's a tradition in the Navy to render passing honors to ships of other nations or ships that have distinguished themselves in battle by assembling the crew, saluting with cannon fire, flags or such. I wish we had the same tradition in our families and communities. Too often we wait until it's too late and at most fire some guns over a grave. Such honors are appropriate, but they are more about the family and ourselves. The honored will never hear the guns nor see the flags.

For more than 7 years it was my wife's privilege to stand beside men and women who had reached the end of their lives.  For three years of that it was my honor to help full time as her titular boss. We worked for an intergenerational day care center. She was the nurse in charge of the senior program and she was brilliant at it.

Her "little old people" were an incredible bunch. We had reporters, women who had been Rosie the Riveters during WWII. We had soldiers who fought at the Battle of the Bulge and defended Bastogne. We had flyers who landed WWII era C-47s in the jungles of Vietnam while guerrilla soldiers shot holes in the floorboards. We had mechanics and test pilots who spent their last years with us. We had a Mercury program flyer who transported astronauts home from missions. We had submariners and Army Rangers who liberated their fellow soldiers from prison camps in the jungles of the Phillipines. They suffered from Alzheimer's, strokes and other age-related disabilities. Their families wanted to keep them home and we got to help.

We became part of families. We stood beside bedsides with families as their loved ones left this world. We considered it an honor and a privilege.

There are four great passages we transit in this life. Birth we do not remember much about Our birth is celebrated by those we love, but we are at the center. Marriage we celebrate with our loved ones and again we are at the center of the festivities. At the birth of our children, we are no longer the center, but standing aside that new life may be the center.

In the final passage, we are too often alone again - the center of attention shifted now onto those who are being left behind to grieve.  I've seen it time and again, people sitting around talking about the person dying, but not to him; family and loved ones standing around shifting uncomfortably, not knowing quite what to do or say.

Miss Sheila always had a way of knowing when to sit beside a dying person and what to say.  When she worked night shifts in nursing homes, people on her wing seemed to wait till nights she was on before passing. She would sit and hold their hands and talk to them through the night, while other aids and nurses gossiped in the break room. She had an intuition about being there when her patients were passing.

I remember going to visit one of our senior volunteers in the hospital. I don't know how, but we arrived at just the right time. We found his wife sitting beside his bed looking worried. She stood and took his hand. Sheila went to the other side of the bed and took his other head. They talked softly to him as though he were the only person in the world. I'm not even sure what they said, but it was evidently time for the old soldier to move on. He breathed slower and slower and finally stopped. You could feel angels in the room. It was an amazing experience.

My family has always sat beside our elders who were dying. My great-grandfather's family were at home with him. My grandpa's family was there. My sister and his youngest daughter were with him the night he passed away. He was not alone. He knew he was loved. The last thing he said to me was, "Take care of my girl." I did my best to do just that.

At death you find out what your family is made of. Sadly the vultures always gather at death to pick over whatever the person is leaving behind. I've more than once stepped away in disgust from the spectacle of loved ones fighting over the dead. I refuse to take part. I'd rather not get a thing - not a keepsake than squabble over the things that belonged to someone I loved. 

I prefer to honor and cherish my loved - to render passing honors to a life well-lived before it is done.  

In life there are givers and takers.
You remember what Jesus said about the takers.  "They have had their reward."  You choose which you will be.
Just one man's opinion.


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