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  • Maggie Wallem Rowe

What the Dying Can Teach Us About Living

Another package arrived this week from Penny*, a friend I’ve only met twice. It’s the third box she's sent of gently used or never worn clothing from my favorite retailer.

My size, my colors, even my style.

“I’ve lost so much weight that I’ll never wear these,” read the accompanying note. “You’re the person I want to have them. I remember your circumstances with Jane last year…”

Penny (name has been changed) has been battling long-haul Covid, debilitating kidney stones, and a terminal cancer diagnosis for over two years. After a mutual friend gifted her with a copy of This Life We Share when she entered the hospital for the first stay of too many, Penny contacted me and I wrote back.

We’ve been in touch every week since, sometimes every day. Despite our faith-filled hope and fervent prayers, we recognize Penny’s prognosis is poor.

You’ve lost loved ones. I have, too. You know others who may leave us soon.

How can we think of them with joy when we know we’ll miss them so terribly?

Today — Tuesday, November 1 —is All Saints’ Day. If you grew up in a non-liturgical church tradition like I did, November 1st wasn’t noted for anything except sugar overload on the day after Halloween.

Also called All Hallows’ Day or Hallowmas, this day on the Christian calendar is traditionally set aside to remember men and women, known or unknown, who have died in Christ. These who have gone before are part of the great “communion of saints” spoken of in the Apostles’ Creed.

At the opening of our worship service this past Sunday, the sanctuary stilled as one of our pastors solemnly read the names of each of the members of our church family who passed away this year. As their photos appeared on a black screen, so did the dates they entered and exited this world.

A bell rang.

Friends and family stood in silent remembrance while flames illuminated over 20 small candles on a long table covered with a pure white cloth.

“This table of lights symbolizes a larger light,” our pastor reminded us, “the Light of the world. It is reflected through the lives of God’s children, now in his presence.

“We pause today to remember our loved ones because we understand the Church as past tense as well as present. The veil is thin between heaven and earth. Today we give thanks for the lives of all who have gone before us.”

For all the saints who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed, thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Mom Wallem entered her final rest nearly three years ago, and I miss her as keenly now as I did when she died just before Christmas 2019. Sometimes I sit on the foot of her bed with our little cat, Trixie, and remember those all-too-brief six weeks after Mom’s advanced cancer diagnosis.

The morning after she got the grim news, I heard Mom on the phone placing an order for a two-pound box of chocolates from her favorite candy company. At my puzzled look, Mom smiled. “No need to watch my weight - might as well live it up!”

When longtime friends who were unaware of Mom’s diagnosis asked to come visit for a few days, Mom agreed enthusiastically, not sharing her personal news until the end of their stay.

When our kids pooled their airline miles and purchased tickets for Mike, Mom, and me to join them all in New England for Thanksgiving, Mom was eager to go despite her fragile health. That December 1, she attended both services at our son's church to hear her grandson preach. By December 20, she was gone.

From Mom, I learned that it’s not up to us to tell the dying how they should best live the days that remain. It’s their currency to spend as they wish.

When my friend Catherine had exhausted every option for treating the aggressive cancer ravaging her body, she threw a tea party in her beautiful Cape Cod home and invited each guest to take home china cups from her collection.

Before I flew from Illinois to visit her for the last time, she asked me to bring a large empty suitcase along. I resisted. I could not admit that Catherine was dying. Surely she would live to use all the lovely things she had amassed over 50 years.

Cath was too weak to rise when I arrived. When her husband, Doug, brought me into her bedroom, she glanced at my small overnight bag and grimaced.

“Maggie, I don’t have much time left,” she murmured. “The only choices left to me are giving away my things. I’ve collected dolls as an adult because I didn’t have much of a childhood. I don’t have daughters, and you do. I asked you to bring an empty suitcase because the Victorian bride doll is going home with you. For your granddaughter someday.”

And she ordered Doug to cobble together a travel case out of cardboard boxes. I could have saved him the trouble.

From Catherine I learned that denial does not help the dying. Listening does.

And as for Penny? Her thoughtfulness teaches me still.

From Penny I’m learning to accept that which she wishes to give.

That a friendship measured in months, not years, can change the course of a life.

That validating the feelings of someone facing death welcomes us into their grief even as they entrust us with their sorrow.

And I’m learning what it means to walk clothed in kindness.

But, lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of glory passes on his way. Alleluia! Alleluia!

For All the Saints, William W. How

- Maggie Wallem Rowe, 2022

COMING NEXT WEEK: “Take Me to Your Leader. Please!”

Maggie Wallem Rowe writes from Peace Ridge, her home in the mountains of western North Carolina. She is the author of two books.

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