Before this week, the second-to-last time I saw Fr. C was three or four months ago; he was all smiles, busying himself with small tasks to be done around the Metropolis headquarters.
“You’re working too hard for someone who’s supposed to be retired,” I chided him with a grin.
“You can’t get rid of me that easily,” he laughed in his thick, Cypriot accent. “I’m still going strong.”
The next time I saw him, he was not smiling nor did he look very strong. Instead, he seemed pale and thin as he sat in the foyer of the Metropolis, an area typically reserved for people waiting to speak with the bishop. I was there early, before the regular employees come to work, and hadn’t expected to find anyone in the office. But there he was.
I don’t believe he saw me, and I almost called out to make another joke about working too hard. Thankfully, I didn’t–at the last second, I realized how serious his expression was. There were tears in his eyes. Clearly he was pondering or praying and needed space.
I didn’t see Fr. C for a long time after that, not until this past Sunday.
At the hospital, we made several false turns before locating the palliative care unit. Along the way, my husband mentioned how he had neglected to realize what “palliative care” meant the first time he ever visited someone here a number of years ago.
“I kept telling her I couldn’t wait for her to get out of the hospital so she could come back to Bible study,” he said. “‘Really?’ She kept asking with this strange look on her face. A week or so later, I got the call that she had fallen asleep in the Lord. That’s when I realized people don’t come home from palliative care.”
We had taken two ladies from church to the hospital who had also been close to Father. As we neared his room, one of them worried she wouldn’t know what to say to him. Do you act like nothing’s wrong? Do you make a joke to cheer him up? Do you say goodbye? Thank you? Good luck? God bless?
“I think you just say how glad you are to see him,” I wondered aloud. “And that you are praying for him. I don’t think there’s anything more to be said.”
Presbytera stood outside his room, lonely and stately, as we ambled down the hallway. She had distinctly said no visitors besides family but she didn’t turn away us as we kissed her hand and cheeks hello.
Inside, Fr. C’s room was quiet aside from the sound his labored breathing. He was not awake, though Presbytera later explained he seemed to grasp some of what was going on around him.
His granddaughters sat by his bedside, reading prayers to themselves. We each took our turn kissing his hand and saying hello. My husband went first, and when I grasped Father’s hand, it felt cool and heavy and frail.
And then we stood around him, sharing our last, quiet moments with a very special priest. The priest whose parish we had been married in. All worries about what to say or how to act dissolved in the presence of this reality, this porous threshold between life and death that Father occupied. We humans have been saying goodbye since time began–the memory of death is etched into our bones. We don’t need instructions.
It was hard, and it was beautiful. Hard to see Father’s tall, hardworking body reduced to sallow feebleness, hard to see Father without his usual, gentle smile and kind words of blessing. And it was hard to think about the last time I’d seen him, praying in the foyer; I suddenly wished I would have peeked my head in to say hello or ask what was wrong or just to sit with him. I wondered, now, if that was the day he had to tell the bishop about his poor health. I don’t know.
But there was beauty, too. We shared our memories of Father. Out of everyone in the room, I had known him the shortest amount of time. But even I could corroborate what everyone else said. That he had never once complained when people asked too much of him, or when his health began to deteriorate. That, as a priest, he had always shown up and given the best of what he had to give. That he never had a harsh word for people–only his typical, soft-spoken kindness. And sometimes we say that about people when the tide of their life begins to go out–sometimes hindsight romanticizes our picture of that person. But with Fr. C, it was true.
As few people are, he was an exceptional person–maybe even holy, but he’d likely take issue with that so I’ll let it be.
Presbytera also shared her memories. She reminded us how serving the Church as a priest was his highest honor and privilege. How they had moved here decades and decades ago as poor immigrants from Cyprus. How he had trusted God for everything in those early days when he possessed scarcely even a coat to put on his back in our cold, Canadian winters.
One time, she told us, they were suddenly transferred to a distant parish and it had made her sad to move and uproot their family. But he would remind her that a priest must serve Christ first, not his family. Perhaps that seems like a callous way to comfort one’s wife if you didn’t know Father, but I’m guessing it broke his heart to say those words. Yet I’m also guessing he believed them and that this belief fortified him. I’m guessing there was comfort to be found in knowing and serving Christ that way.
They just don’t make ’em like that anymore, I thought, as he lay calmly in the bed. But another thought quickly interrupted: We don’t make ourselves like that anymore. We don’t follow when Christ asks everything of us, our homeland, our warmth, our livelihoods.
Every now and then, Father would murmur softly to himself and tug at his hospital gown a little. At one point, Presbytera pulled the top of his pajamas back up to cover his neck, but he promptly yanked them back into place. I don’t know who else in the room noticed that, but the playfulness of Father’s gesture was unmistakable–my husband and I both stifled our smiles.
I recalled a similar interaction between Father and Presbytera last year when visited Father in the hospital after a heart operation. That day, he had been jovial and able to walk around–it was the most relaxed I’d ever seen him. And that day, too, Presbytera tried pulling his hospital gown more snug around him, but he tugged the gown back down and batted her hand away with an infectious smile, as though he were a kitten wanting to play. I have never forgotten that moment, the look of love and humor between them remains fixed in my memory.
And as I looked down at Father, a quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer crossed my mind: “We die as a measure of how we have lived.” Death is a microcosm of our lives and characters–for better or for worse. And here, despite being semi-conscious and physically deteriorated, was a man who was managing to face death the same way he had lived: calmly, meekly, and obediently, but not without a streak of good-humored mischief.
To me, Father was mysteriously and quintessentially himself in that moment.
And it made me thankful–thankful his last days of life could reflect his unique, God-given personhood. Thankful that he had served as an example to all those he came in contact with. Thankful that he was leaving us with a bit of a challenge to live up to, but also a bit of a smile–some tears and some laughter. Thankful that death and sadness wouldn’t have the last word in our final encounter with Father.
After a half hour or so, we sensed it was time to go; his family should have their time alone with him.
We don’t often get a chance to kiss the dying. Even when it is a family member, we tend to keep the physicality of death at a distance. But Father was still a priest and worthy of our respect and gratitude, so of course, we kissed his hand upon leaving. It seemed the most fitting way to bid farewell and communicated what words could not–that even death cannot dismantle Christian love.
Outside, as our friends and I waited for my husband to retrieve the car, it was a gorgeous day–maybe the most beautiful one we’d had all fall: crisp autumnal sunlight, a sky as blue as heaven, leaves as orange as fire. We were still wiping tears from our cheeks but couldn’t get over how perfect it was. The hospital paths were lined with flowers of countless varieties, as far as the eye could see, and they all seemed to be blooming at that very moment, on that very afternoon. A monarch as big as my hand fluttered past, dancing on the tips of some crimson chrysanthemums.
It didn’t seem right that all this beauty could carry on so close to a person who is dying.
But then, slowly, I realized that’s exactly as it should be–a torrent of life surging up to overwhelm the frailty of death.
+++ In your prayers, remember the departed priest and servant of God, Fr. Charalambos Elles.+++