The great divide between life and death



The hospice ward where my grandfather lay dying was on the same floor as the hospital’s maternity ward.  I found it comforting and beautiful to think that people were entering this world in such close proximity to where they were also exiting it.  For some, their missions were concluding; for others, they had just begun.

As I waited by my grandfather’s side with a rosary in my hand, I saw an orderly walk by pushing a gurney upon which there was a body covered by a sheet.  At that exact moment, I heard the faint wail of a newborn infant, and I imagined the soul who was leaving giving advice to the one who was just starting out.

Don’t take one moment for granted. 

It will be over before you know it.

Be nice to everyone you meet.

Love with all your heart.

I laughed when I thought about my grandfather’s playful sense of humor and what he might say, instead, to someone just coming to this world.

Work hard and be good, but not too good. 

Adopt at least one mutt in your life; it will be the best dog you’ve ever had. 

Be a fan of the Miami Dolphins, even if they never win a game. 

Go fishing often, even if you don’t wet a line. 

Never trust a man who doesn’t drink.

The infant—who was likely now coddled in his mother’s arms for the first time—stopped crying.  I looked down at my grandfather.  Now in his final hours, he, too, had become like an infant, unable to speak, incapable of feeding himself, vulnerable yet beautiful.  His eyes reminded me of how the eyes of my own children looked in their first moments: dark, foggy, and rarely open.

I took his large, calloused hand in mine and held it tightly as his body trembled.  When he was young, my grandfather—Patrick was his name, but people affectionately called him Pat—was tall, handsome, and blonde-haired.  Everyone loved his sense of humor and, according to my grandmother, the ladies, herself included, were enamored with his blue eyes and large, kissable lips.  After college, Pat had joined the US Marines and was sent to the Korean War.  He had hoped to fight for his country but instead arrived after the battles had ceased, so he passed his time hunting pheasants.  He enlisted a Korean boy to retrieve the birds.

After the war, my grandfather married my grandmother and they moved to Florida at a time when air-conditioning was non-existent.  Back then, it was like moving to the frontier, but far hotter and replete with mosquitos.  He took a job as a sales agent for Pratt & Whitney, an aerospace company in Florida, and started a family with my grandmother.  They had two children: Daniel, my father, and Patricia, my aunt.

Grandpa’s smile and sense of humor led to success at his job, but it was how he lived outside of work that really made him special.  He took full advantage of the wildness and adventure that still existed in Florida at that time.  He built a swamp buggy and took his friends and family camping in the Everglades where they shot empty beer cans with .22 rifles and caught rattlesnakes with burlap sacks.  He fixed up an old boat and went fishing for sailfish and mahi mahi in the Gulf Stream, telling my grandmother he was out hunting for mermaids.  He took the family on road trips to the Keys where they caught lobster from the reefs and scoured break-walls for driftwood treasures, although his idea of treasure might be considered trash by many.

He lived life to the fullest, and, although I only knew him in the last thirty-two years of his life, a big part of him made its way into me. There are certain things that I will never forget about him. For example, he smoked Tiparillo cigars for many years; I still use some of his empty cigar boxes to hold my keepsakes, and the smell of the smoke from a Tiparillo is etched into my senses.  He loved old Country Western music, war movies, dogs of all kinds, and his riding lawnmower which he used like a little tractor, hauling firewood and junk.  He found peace in nature.  He carved out a “jungle trail” in the wooded lot next to his home and nailed coffee cans to the pine trees which he filled with pecans, hoping to befriend the squirrels. My fondest memory, though, is sitting on his lap on the balcony of his waterfront house early one morning; in silence, we watched the sun rise over the St. Lucie River as white egrets erupted from their mangrove perches like angels taking flight.

I thank God for his influence in my life. God, however, was one of the few things that he and I never talked about, and as he began to slip away in the hospice, I started to wonder what he believed.  I had no doubts that he had faith.  He was an altar server during his childhood and came from a devout Irish Catholic background, but I had never really known him to attend Mass.

On the day after he passed away, I would find out the reason for this when I asked my grandmother about grandpa’s beliefs.

“When he was a young man, Pat was very much a Catholic,” she said.  “He had a stronger belief in God than I did.  He had no doubts.  But when he got married the first time—”

“Whoa, what?” I interrupted her.  “Grandpa was married before you?”

She smiled.  “I wasn’t sure if you knew that.  Yes, he married a girl named Anna, in a Catholic wedding, right before he went off to Korea.  While he was there, they kept in touch through letters, but, one day, she stopped responding.  When he got back from Korea, she was gone.  She had just disappeared, and he never heard from her or saw her again.”

I was shocked.  I had never even considered the possibility that my grandfather had been married to someone else.  “And then he met you?” I asked.

“That’s right,” said my grandmother, trying to hold back her tears.  “We wanted to get married, but the Church would not allow it.  Your grandfather really wanted to get married in a Catholic Church—his faith was so strong—but the clergy said ‘no’ because of his previous marriage to Anna.  Well, we wanted to start a family together, so we had a simple non-church wedding, which made it so that we could no longer receive Communion. Your grandfather was very hurt by the Church. He didn’t understand how they could be so rigid about his previous marriage, and he stopped going to Mass.”

I was sad for my grandfather.  I explained to my grandmother that the Catholic Church had made great strides since then, especially in cases of annulments for extenuating circumstances.

“I know,” she said with a smile.  “Not long ago, your grandfather and I got married again.”

“You did what?”

“We got married again, but we didn’t tell anyone.  The Church finally annulled his previous marriage, and he was able to fulfill one of his biggest wishes in life… for us to be married in a Catholic Church.”

That night as my grandfather lay dying, however, I did not know anything about his previous marriage nor his history with the Church.  All I knew was that he was the kindest, most loving man I had ever known.  As the sun began to set, I decided that I would do everything I could to ensure that his transition to the next world would be a peaceful one.  He had, after all, done so much for me in my life, and I was finally presented with a way that I could help him. I loved him dearly. And, by the end of that night, I would have three experiences that confirmed to me that God loved him dearly, too.

It began with a song.  My grandmother and aunt had spent the entire day with my grandfather.  As they were about to leave, the hospital chaplain—a bubbly Baptist man with a calm, Southern voice—asked if we could all pray together around my grandfather.  We were all a little bit uncomfortable with his suggestion at first—we’re Catholics, thank you very much—but we reluctantly held hands with the chaplain in a circle around my sleeping grandfather.  The prayer was simple and non-denominational enough: blessings for Pat and his family, and a reminder of Jesus’ love.  But then, quite suddenly, the chaplain announced that he felt called to sing.

Oh no, I thought to myself, and I could see that my grandmother and aunt were equally nervous.  What was he going to sing?  A Baptist hymn?

But then, suddenly, he opened his mouth and the most beautiful song came out.  Ave Maria.

As the chaplain belted out the Latin in a deep, melodic voice that seemed like it could have come out of Pavarotti, we were all shocked and intensely moved.  My grandfather, too, reacted to the song, moving his hands up and down slightly; I imagined that, in his mind, he was probably joking around and pretending to be conducting a symphony.  When the song was over, the chaplain looked just as surprised as we were, and he thanked us and hurried towards the door.

“Wait,” I said.  “Can you call the nearest Catholic church and see if a priest can come give my grandfather the blessing of the sick today?”

The chaplain smiled, nodded, and walked out.  I told my grandmother that I wanted to stay with my grandfather alone that night at the hospice.  I did not know why; I just felt a strong urge to be there with him the entire night.  My grandmother was happy that I wanted to stay, and she headed home with my aunt.  She had barely gotten any rest since my grandfather’s debilitating stroke that had happened the previous week, so I was hopeful that she would sleep peacefully knowing that I was there with him.

Moments after she left, the chaplain stuck his head in the door.  “I called the church,” he said, “but they can’t send a priest until tomorrow.”

“OK,” I said.  “Hopefully that’s enough time.”

It was November 8, 2010—the night before my mother’s birthday—and so I called her from the hospice. I explained that the nurses and doctors said that my grandfather was passing away, and that it might be a few days or a week before he finally died.

“You should pray the Divine Mercy chaplet,” she said.  My mother had recently developed a strong devotion to Divine Mercy, which involves messages that Jesus gave to St. Faustina illustrating his unfathomable love for mankind.

“I will,” I promised.  Minutes later I was Googling the chaplet and I came across this quote:

As for the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy, Jesus told St. Faustina: “My daughter, encourage souls to say the chaplet which I have given to you. It pleases Me to grant everything they ask of Me by saying this chaplet… Write that when they say this chaplet in the presence of the dying, I will stand between My Father and the dying person, not as the just Judge but as the merciful Savior.”

That was all I needed to read.  I grabbed my rosary and knelt down next to my grandfather’s bed, but I felt like I should go to Confession before beginning, if for no other reason than to be spiritually pure for such an important prayer.  My thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door.  I turned around and, to my astonishment, a Catholic priest was coming into the room.

“I thought you couldn’t come until tomorrow,” I said.

He nodded.  “Yes, but then right after I got off the phone with the chaplain, something came up that I have to do tomorrow, and my schedule became free tonight. So, here I am.”

“Will you hear my Confession?” I blurted out.  The priest was a bit stunned at first, but then he smiled, and I could sense that he understood the reason for my wish.

“Sure, I can do that,” he said, and there—in that cold, dark hospice room—I cleansed my soul.

The priest then prayed over my grandfather for a long time and anointed him with oil, but afterwards he did not seem to want to leave, and I was happy about that.  For the next hour, he led me in prayers for my grandfather.  We held his hands as we recited the litany of saints, imploring them to carry my grandfather home.

This is what Catholicism is all about, I thought to myself.  It’s the bridge between this world and the next, the apex of the Great Divide.

By the time the priest did depart, a palpable peace had filled the room. I like to think of that peace as a symbol of my grandfather—moved by the kindness of that priest—making amends with the Church that he had loved so much.

Filled with God’s love, I knelt beside by grandfather and prayed the entire Divine Mercy chaplet, and then I fell asleep in the chair next to him while praying the rosary.  It reminded me of the times I slept in the hospital room beside my wife while she was in labor, and—as the first glimmer of sunlight woke me the next day—I rose with the same vague sense of an impending miracle that I had on the days my children were born.

I sat in the chair and sipped a cup of coffee as rays from the rising sun began to fill the room with soft, orange light. I heard my grandfather take a deep, slow breath, followed by a long exhale. I slowly turned to look at him.

“Grandpa?” I said, knowing he would not answer.  I watched his chest for his next breath but it never came; the previous one had been his last.

It was faint at first—the smell of roses.  But then it filled the room, and I breathed in deeply several times to be sure I wasn’t imagining it.  There were no flowers in the room, and, besides, I had never smelled any flower as fragrant as what I smelled then.  My eyes filled with tears; I was overwhelmed by a mixture of emotions.  I felt grief at the realization that my grandfather had just died, but I also felt intense joy knowing that the flowers were a sign of God’s presence in the room.  I knew then that my grandfather was in good hands.

I stood there and prayed for a moment, and then I informed the hospice staff that my grandfather had passed, and they confirmed it with one look.  The orderly asked me to leave the room while he prepared my grandfather’s body for my grandmother to see him; they had called her and she was already on her way with my aunt.  I left and went into the hospice waiting room, wiping tears from my eyes.  I noticed a bookshelf, and my eyes were drawn to one book in particular.  It was an old National Geographic hardcover with photographs of the Rocky Mountains.

I smiled when I read the title: The Great Divide.

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*Days after he passed away, it seems that my grandfather wanted to let his family know that he was in a better place, and he made it known in a rather beautiful way.  This will be the subject of a future blog post, so please subscribe to my blog and we will notify you when it is posted. God bless.  -Sean Bloomfield

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