"Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death."
It was a death in the middle of the night at the hospital. When you are the Chaplain on-call, you work your usual 8:30 am to 4:30 pm shift and then you pick up the night pager from the Spiritual Care office. From 4:30 pm onwards, all spiritual emergencies in the hospital are in your hands.
What will these emergencies be? Someone who has been given some bad medical news, and is scared in a way they never thought possible? A mother who has been in the hospital with her gravely ill child for the last two weeks and has reached her wits' end? An hysterical relative beating his head on the brick wall (I actually witnessed this)? Or a family who is sad, but calm; who knew that their elderly relative was dying, had a chance to say their good-byes and who are experiencing a sad sort of peace?
It was the latter situation that I walked into at 1:45 am one early Spring night when Administrative Services paged to let me know there was a death. I wakened out of a sound sleep and tried to come to my senses, to prepare myself for whatever state the family would be in.
As I opened the door into into the large room on the Palliative Care unit, I encountered approximately 25 family members as well as the deceased. The patient was elderly, an Irish-American matriarch. Her visitors were about 18 female relatives and about 7 men.
As I entered the room, it was quiet and peaceful. Some family members were crying quietly. A number of eyes looked at me and a number of mouths smiled sadly.
"Thank you so much for coming in the middle of the night, Chaplain. The priest gave mom Last Rites the other day, and we are thankful for that. We know she is with God. But we wonder if you would say a prayer for her while we are all here?"
As I usually do, I asked about the deceased and what the family wanted to pray and I tried to incorporate that into my prayers. As I also usually do with Catholic families, I suggested that they join me in the "Our Father" and "Hail Mary" afterward.
I hope a prayed a good prayer of commendation and blessing for their matriarch. But it was the "Hail Mary" that I remember. Because somewhere in the middle of the Lord's Prayer, all the men stopped speaking. And, along with these 18 other women, we were praying this prayer asking Jesus' mother to keep us all in her prayers up until the hour of our deaths. And we stood in the presence of this family matriarch who seems to have taught her family some small thing about dying well or they wouldn't have been there in the first place. Holy Mary, mother of God, were you praying for this sinner at the hour of her death?