By Marian West –
I shall never forget accompanying Rita in her final battle. It was one of the highest honors of my 14-month mission in Brooklyn, NY, with Heart’s Home (www.heartshomeusa.org). Our mission was simply to be a presence of compassion, and to offer friendship to the isolated, lonely, and suffering ones.
These last encounters with Auntie Rita brought me low to her basement bedside, to my knees, and impressed deeply upon my heart. The vivid memory of her remains with me as I venture forward in accompanying the dying.
We met “Auntie Rita,” as she was affectionately called, in the nursing home, when she was vivacious, always donning bright red lipstick and tropical colors of her sing-songy Trinidad. Last winter, she returned to her brownstone home in our neighborhood of Fort Greene, where we would visit her from time to time. One day last fall, when a co-volunteer, Pia, and I went, as promised, to paint her nails bright red, we noticed a severe deterioration of her mental and physical state. Rita was not herself and she knew it. Her health was slipping rapidly; she could hardly recognize herself, as her whole body was growing puffy with edema and her breathing becoming more and more labored. She also reported fighting with her home attendant, and begged us for help, for peace. Besides singing You are the Wind Beneath my Wings to her music-loving self, we also offered to bring Communion to her each Sunday. Her eyes lit up: “Oh yes! Yes please!”
So, for the following three Sundays, we brought Communion to our dear Auntie Rita.
On one particular Sunday, Katie, a former Heart’s Home volunteer, and I visited Rita together. We were brought low to her basement bedside, to our knees. We walked into quite a messy situation: Rita was on her hospital bed in her make-shift, basement bedroom. Her blankets were strewn about, a sweater plopped over her chest with one arm through a sleeve, and oatmeal spilled on her nightgown. In one hand, she was clutching her spoon. She looked so desperately uncomfortable. There was a fury of tension between Rita and her home attendant and live-in niece. They were all yelling at one another. Rita’s precious breaths were being spent on vehement shouting. Her two caretakers gave up on her and left the room. I don’t know what came over me, but grace: clarity that carried me step by step. Katie and I went right to Rita’s side and began to clean her up and situate her comfortably, tending to her immediate physical necessities. These simple gestures instantly lifted matters. Then I went out to her caretakers. I asked them their story. They told me that Rita was in no state to receive Communion – that she refused to apologize for her arguing and that she was possessed. She had been yelling and writhing for the last 24 hours without any rest. They were beside themselves with frustration, and understandably so; but I also wanted to hear Rita’s story.
So I went to her bedside, and looked into her eyes. I asked how she was doing. She proceeded to tell me how poorly she had been treated, that this was not her true self, and that all she needed was a good doctor and a priest. She was so fully aware of her dignity and also of the fact that it was no longer being met properly. So trustingly, she exclaimed: “Look at these whiskers! I look like a man! And my voice! I sound all gruff and grumbly! And I keep yelling! That isn’t like me! What is wrong with me?! This is not me! Help me! I keep telling them – all I need is a good doctor and a priest! I need to go to the hospital, but they won’t take me. They treat me like I’m a child, but I’m not. Please help me!” She began to weep, overwhelmed in her powerlessness. I took her hand. Our eyes met. I felt such love for Rita in her vulnerable state. Finally, she was able to release some of the fight. Through her tears, she said to me, “I’m afraid!”
I looked directly into her big, open eyes: “Rita, why are you afraid?”
“I’m afraid of dying.” Her eyes suddenly darted to the far wall, and opened wide, “The evil is bigger! The evil is stronger! It’s scary!”
I leaned in very close, still holding her puffy hand. A certainty, bigger than myself, swept through me as I spoke directly to her: “Rita, that is a lie. The good is stronger than evil. Love is stronger. God is bigger.”
Rita’s body arched up in pain and her arm seized the top of her bed. Her eyes popped open wide as she wailed aloud in agony, “God has left me! I’m alone. He has abandoned me.” I have never felt so vividly at the foot of a friend’s cross. I was entering the very stark and beautiful heart – the mystery – of our mission, of each life!
“Rita! God has not left you! You are so very close to Jesus right now that His cry from the Cross is yours! You are shouting His Heart! This is how close He is to you right now! God is with you, Rita. He’s right here, and He is protecting you. Love has you.” I squeezed her hand. She was listening intently and believing.
She continued pleading from her depths, crying out, “God, help me! Mary! Joseph! Help me! Help me!”
I led her in a simple prayer, and she followed every word. Katie – so quietly present and attentive – and I prayed a Hail Mary as I softly stroked Rita’s cheek. Rita’s head gently rested and her eyes closed peacefully. Very suddenly, everything came to a hush. The calm after the storm. We kept imploring softly, “Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death,” as we wondered whether our friend was passing away.
For a long moment, there was no sound, complete stillness. Then Rita’s eyes opened. Woo, a sigh of relief. We smiled into her eyes, as she smiled back with a newborn’s quietude.
“Rita, would you like to receive Jesus?”
“Oh, yes. Yes, please.”
Katie and I led her through a Communion service, the air now pregnant with peace and light, her room brightly lit and enwrapped securely in a Mother’s gentle embrace. I gave Rita Communion and we sang her favorite hymn, Amazing Grace. All was well. There was an immense sense of well-being, as she lulled into a serene rest, though her breathing still delicate and weak.
I went to her caretakers and asked them if they could please take Rita to the hospital. Katie and I left, our hearts heavy but full of awe at the miraculous transformation that Jesus’ Presence had brought to our Auntie Rita in her anguish. Night to day.
The next day, we received a call: Rita had suffered cardiac arrest and was in the ICU in a coma. Pia and I went to see her. It was startling to see her in that raw state, her body vibrating with the ventilator. We prayed with her, hoping to be able to see her again. Three days later, Sr. Regina of Heart’s Home, and I went again to see Rita. This time, she was on a more aggressive ventilator, which made her whole body convulse violently. Her home attendant was also there and she shared with us that after we left that Sunday evening, Rita woke up peacefully and said to her, “Please come next to me.” She asked for her forgiveness and then said, “Hold my hand.” After that, Rita turned over and slept like a baby, which she hadn’t done for days. The next morning she was rushed to the hospital.
Sr. Regina and I prayed with Rita and her home attendant. As I held her hand, no longer puffy or painful, but once again elegant, we all sang a verse of Amazing Grace. We learned the next day that Rita entered eternal life twenty minutes after we left.
Auntie Rita, “Fly! Fly! Fly high against the sky! So high I almost touch the sky…Thank you, thank you, thank God for you, you are the wind beneath our wings . . .”
Auntie Rita is truly a dear friend for me in Heaven now. I feel so blessed and humbled beyond measure to have been invited into her agony, to bring Jesus to her in her last few weeks here, and then in her final earthly battle, before her sweet, serene slumber. Who am I to be so close to this holy woman, in her holy hour? To be drawn into the intimate detail of her mysterious, sacred passage? It was a pure gift.
The family was so grateful to us for our presence with their Auntie Rita. They asked if I would sing Amazing Grace at her funeral. She was dressed in all purple, and under her violet lace gloves, I could see bright red nails shining through. Auntie Rita, you’re in your full array of color now, bright shining as the sun!