I attended a funeral for a friend on Friday. Kathryn was a member of our parish family who joined about a year ago. We didn’t know she was dying of cancer.
She was bright, witty, with a big smile and an infectious joy in living. One Sunday, shortly before she died, as I was leaving the parish hall, I turned to her and waved goodbye. She grinned, waved back and shouted, “I love you.” I smiled back and shouted, “I love you too.” That was the last time I saw her.
She had orchestrated her dying. She found a church that would help with her year of preparation, but she didn’t want anyone to know (except our priest). When I learned she had gone into the hospital, then was dying at home, I felt as though I had been cheated of knowing her better. Others said the same thing to me. “We wished we had known…”
I understand her choice of silence. We would have treated her differently and she didn’t want that. She wanted to live life to the fullest up to the last minute in as ordinary a manner as possible. And what a life she had had: she had several advanced degrees; she was a classical violinist; she wrote and published a volume of “poetic letters”; she was a stewardess for World Airways, a librarian, a model for I Magnin’s. She had a house full of cats and stacks of books. As I gazed at the photos in the booklet given to us at her funeral, I saw she was beautiful, intelligent, and precocious at an early age.
Our priest said in his homily on Friday that she died a “good death.” She prepared the booklet ahead of time, chose the hymns and the pictures and the readings. And as I left the church, walking through the narthex on Friday morning, I paused before the open casket. I said to her, see you in Heaven, Kathryn, I love you.
A body no longer living is a body that no longer has God’s breath breathing through its lungs, no longer has blood beating through its heart. Kathryn was close to seventy-one, but her face was smooth, all life lines gone. I knew she wasn’t in that body anymore, but I also sensed she was with us for the moment, that she was out-of-body, smiling her big smile and laughing.
I thought of her on Saturday when I attended a joyous bridal shower for another friend in the parish. Twenty ladies gathered to sip champagne and iced tea, lunch on quiche and salads and cake, and open presents to the chorus of oohs and ahs and grandmotherly advice and sayings. Did you know that the number of times you cut the ribbon is the number of children you will have? We of course were hoping for many children… to add to our parish joy. (She seemed to cut the ribbon quite a few times.) Kathryn would have loved the moment, she was so full of life.
And I thought of her as I sat in church this morning on Good Shepherd Sunday, the Second Sunday after Easter. Kathryn was one of the sheep who had come into our little fold, had chosen us to be with, as she did her dying (what an honor). She knew the voice of Jesus the Good Shepherd, so that when he called her name she could follow. She trusted him to care for her, to protect her, in life and in death and in life again. She knew where she was going, she knew how to get there (unlike St. Thomas), and she knew she would recognize the gate to Heaven.
On Friday we read together the beloved Twenty-third Psalm:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Anglican, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Catholic churches have shepherds – bishops. Bishop comes from the word episcopos, Greek for “overseer,” or “shepherd,” one who guards. Bishops are priests elected and consecrated to guard us, to protect us from that which is not true (heresy) and from those who proclaim that which is not true (heretics), i.e., from wolves in the sheepfold. We trust our bishops to lead us on the path to Heaven and keep us safe along the way. But bishops are human and frail just like us, so our trust is not always rewarded. Nevertheless, in the Church we repent and forgive one another as Christ teaches us to do.
This morning we sang Eastertide resurrection hymns, but we also sang, The King of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never, I nothing lack if I am his and he is mine forever… I was thankful that our Good Shepherd, who conquered death, who knows me as I know him, leads me through this world and into the next just as he led Kathryn.
Don’t you just love Good Shepherd Sunday? And that hymn! My all-time favorite, I think. This is a beautiful meditation on your friend, and on life and death and our sure hope.