The first time I ever heard the Christmas song, ‘O holy night, the stars were brightly shining,’ it was being played on a phonograph propped behind a black backdrop at the funeral home. My paternal grandfather passed away on the Christmas morning of my ninth year. For years after, when I heard ‘fall on your knees, and hear the angels’ voices,’ all I could think of was how I had to kneel down in front of grandpa’s casket and pray the Lord’s prayer and a ‘Hail Mary’ and then stand up again and kiss his hand with his black rosary wrapped around the fingers. The association of this song with funerals passed long ago, but Christmas for me still has a tinge of melancholy about it.
While we go through our daily routines, now in the ‘Christmas season’ (as the world calls it—it is actually the season of Advent, the time of preparation for Christmas), adding to our usual tasks the pleasant one of shopping for gifts and decorations, and planning our parties and get-togethers, others are experiencing life quite differently. For some it will be, as it was in mythic Narnia under the White Witch, ‘always winter and never Christmas.’ As if that weren’t bad enough, enduring the cold and darkness of winter without the bright feast of the Lord’s Nativity, far worse things must be endured by some during this festive or pre-festal time.
This is not going to be the usual encouragement to remember the poor and neglected among us, especially the children and the homeless. We can remember them not only now but all through the year if we want to. Nor will I spoil the season’s cheer by bringing up the suffering of the Syrian and other peoples in the conflicts of the Middle East. There’s little we can do for them anyway, except pray for them—Lord, have mercy! But much closer to home, I want to open a door on a life that is about to close, and ask again, brethren, your prayers for a nameless woman, afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, who is starving herself to death this week.
You might think victims of this disease incapable of such things. Though they remember no one, some of them live quite long in this condition and are even happy, as their helpless relatives look on. For others, the affliction can take other forms, unpleasant and even violent. I have little experience in these matters, except that I know this one woman whose condition has quickly gone from bad to worse, and her daughter, unwilling to put her out of the house to some care facility, has attempted to live with her in the home she knew all her life. Now, that experience too is coming to a close, as the old woman, though she seems to know nothing else, knows how to die, knows how to kill herself.
Her husband did something similar. When he became tired of putting up with the disease that left him helpless, he too starved himself to death, first taking only water, then nothing. Now, his wife, remembering somewhere inside her his method of final exit, is doing the same. Her bereft daughter will not stop it. How could she? How could she not? people might ask, but no one can ask such questions without standing in her place. I expect to hear that the old woman has reposed before the bright feast of Christmas. She may even have gone to the Lord as I write this. This is my memorial to the mystery of her life and her death, which only the merciful and good God knows.
Again and again in peace, let us pray to the Lord, Lord, have mercy!