The Common Good

The Bookends of Life

There's something special about the bookends of our lifetimes. I became a first-time father seven months ago and a hospice chaplain just one month past. Growing up and growing old, especially the first and last months of our lives, can be surprisingly similar experiences.

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I fed my daughter sweet potatoes for the first time last night. Introducing her to solid foods has been a treat. While we're trying our best to teach her the sign language words for "food", "more", and " all done", Robin still finds closed-mouth grumble-whines to be the best way to let us know she thinks sweet potatoes aren't all that hot. Another subtly nuanced whine might instead wonder, "You don't happen to have any more mashed banana or applesauce around, would you?" My attempt to turn the filled spoon into an acrobatic and roaring airplane met with scant success.

This morning I waited for an elderly hospice dementia patient wake up from her nap and eat lunch with the help of a nurse. The process was strikingly identical, down to the nurse's creative and encouraging spoon movements and tones to convince the patient that one more bite of pureed spinach was just what she wanted. "Open up!," the nurse chimes cheerfully. "Tastes great!" And the patient, just like Robin, alternated between the repeated mantra "one-more-one-more-one-more" and "no-more-no-more-no-more" so that the words melted together.

After the nurse left, I sat down next to the bed, introduced myself, and sat in silence for some minutes while I held her hand. As I read aloud a brief service from the Book of Common Prayer, her eyes fluttered shut and another nap overtook her.

As the clock moves its inexorable hands closer to the moments of birth and death, the sacred nature of these twinned transitions really emerge. There are the rituals we humans have developed, varied by time and place and culture, to celebrate and mourn beginnings and endings, both of which reside in each person's first and last breaths. So much rides for each of us -- for our families, communities, and species -- on God's sustained gift of life. Perhaps these moments remind us of the precariousness and blessedness of our own privileged position between existential inhalation and exhalation.

But these first and last moments point not only to that "space between," but to that which lies before and after this sensual, devastatingly satisfying gift of life. Here the Spirit takes control over minds struggling to understand, hearts overflowing with love and grief, and souls slipping into new homes.

What a joy it was to watch my wife Laurel's grandmother meet Robin, almost 90 years her junior, for the first time! Babies are truly the Patch Adamses of any nursing facility. But there was something vibrating in the air, something I just sensed, as peek-a-boo continued. Perhaps it was an intuition within the awe of watching these two together that I feel when I wonder at the immensity and stillness of an old-growth redwood, or a canyon carved deep by a river, or a centuries-old cathedral. There is immortality here, the good kind: the kind enabled by memory's constant and unassuming and patient resurrections. Most of all, I just sensed God's presence in the room that day. And I sense it now, as Robin breathes softly, rhythmically, in time to my patient's more labored, but easily as sweet, numbered breaths.

Colin Mathewson and his wife Laurel served as a Sojourners interns from 2006-07. Both are now seminarians at Sewanee: University of the South studying to become Episcopal priests. Check out their blog at colinandlaurel.blogspot.com.

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