At a Sunday afternoon Mass in August, Deacon Bob approached the podium to speak. “Over this past week, I went to the doctor and I got my test results back. I found out that my cancer has returned, and I have at most six months to live.” He paused. I felt the anxious sadness ripple through the congregation, but Deacon Bob stood tall, his face serene. “But you know,” he continued, “I found out my prognosis on Thursday. But God knew on Wednesday, and God knew on Tuesday. Nothing is a surprise to God.” He continued to speak for several minutes, sharing his meditations on the end of life with us. He spoke with great academic depth, but at a level that a layperson could understand.
What struck me was how even though this man was facing his imminent death, he was the center of strength for all of us as we grappled with the news together. With his unshakeable faith that everything was right with the world, including his place in it, “Nothing is a surprise to God” was a supremely comforting way to accept the inevitable.
Through the fall and into the winter, Deacon Bob continued to serve at Mass, and he continued to give the homily from time to time, with his trademark blend of calm wisdom and approachable intellectualism. Until one Sunday he stumbled, and then straightened up as we rose for the Creed, his face ashen. He never served at Mass again.
One late January morning before Mass, a red-eyed Father Jim walked to the front of the sanctuary and addressed the congregation – “I wanted to let you all know that Deacon Bob passed away a little bit after 2 this morning. Both his wife and I were able to be with him as he passed into the arms of Our Savior. He was very thankful for all your love, support, and prayers over these last several months.” All of us spent Mass either openly weeping or stifling tears – even Father Jim, usually so full of joy to say Mass, choked back tears that morning.
Time passed, one Sunday after another, and eventually Mass without Deacon Bob became the new normal.
The following January, on the first anniversary of Deacon Bob’s death, Father Jim took a few minutes to remember him – “Even at the end, he never doubted, not for one minute, that God loved him and that God was with him.”
Watching the end of Deacon Bob’s life was like watching the textbook definition of a good death. The type of death that I wish for myself and for everyone I love. If I am given the gift of knowing when my time is coming, I hope I have the courage to face it, accept it, and prayerfully await the end with half the wisdom of Deacon Bob.
For Brittany Maynard, Deacon Bob, and anyone else who has had to look death in the eye.