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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

God is at work in our lives

An Everyday Miracle is proof that God is at work in our lives. Not all miracles are accompanied by angelic crescendos or choruses of alleluias. Some are. Just look at the "Miracle on the Hudson." A brave and skilled pilot who believes he unwittingly trained his whole life to be prepared for three-and-half minutes in command of a crippled jet over one of the most populated cities in the world. Did divine intervention lead the right man to be in the right place at the right time? Many believe so. A miracle.

But Everyday Miracles are the less well-documented, more easily overlooked variety. Miracles that awe, inspire, console, motivate, and reassure us every day. It's the cell phone we ran back to look for, causing us to miss an important flight that spared us a crash that didn't have the miraculous ending of Flight 1549. Everyday Miracles are personal miracles. Proof God is with us, if only we open our eyes to see him.

Tampa Bay is filled with folks who have their eyes open, so under the topic of Everyday Miracles I'll showcase miraculous stories of local folks, like you and me. The Everyday Miracles topic began on Easter Sunday with Fr. Peter Nicosia's remarkable story. Today comes the next story . . .

The grace of a happy death.”

I pray for the grace of a happy death during Intercessions at mass and morning prayer but can't honestly say I've ever really understood what I'm praying for. When reflecting on the statement, I have to admit it strikes as less of a prayer than an oxymoron--like jumbo shrimp. I mean, except in extreme situations, who's really happy about dying?

We're supposed to keep our eyes on the goal--salvation and eternal life. Our faith keeps us focused. While I understand the premise, I'm not nearly so detached from my worldly self to feel this way. Not until God blessed me with a little more insight.

Faith isn't a feeling. It's a choice.

C.S. Lewis really nails the concept when he talks about charity in Mere Christianity. “Charity means love in the Christian sense. But love in the Christian sense does not mean an emotion. It is a state, not of feelings, but of the will.”

Faith is like that, too. It's recognizing that God is in our lives, knowing what we need when we don't, and gracing us with his insight to help us along the way.

This time he used the unlikely circumstances of my uncle's death.

My Uncle Tommy was so Italian. He loved good food--lots of it--and lots of family around him. And family didn't just have to be blood related. Not by a long shot. If Uncle Tommy loved someone, that person became part of the family. If someone who became part of the family loved someone, that person became part of the family, too. And on and on. His door was always open to family.

Many years ago I embraced the phrase “family-by-love” to describe people whom God had generously allowed me to adopt into my life. Close friends who have become honorary aunties to my kids. Older folks who step in as surrogate parents and grandparents. Younger folks who become cherished cousins. Family gatherings and holiday celebrations are always loud and chaotic, frequently filled with drama, but always undeniably fun. I learned the concept of family-by-love from my uncle.

He loved to tell jokes--yes, off-color ones. He had twinkle in his eyes that could make me feel better no matter what life dished up and strong arms that could make a hug feel like the only safe place in the world.

And he loved unconditionally. I don't think I really understood just how much until he starting having health issues. The past decade saw him struggle with one serious illness after another. I can't even remember how many times he'd been in and out of the hospital, until a totally vital man traded full-time work days for daily dialysis and frequent doctors' visits.

But somewhere along the way, my uncle made the choice to deal with his illnesses the same way he lived his life--with love. He shared the reality of his deteriorating health situation. He didn't play the denial game, or let anyone else. He shared his aches and pains, the decisions he faced and his stubborn determination to enjoy whatever time he had left.

He bought the Cadillac he'd always wanted to shuttle his grandkids to school about the same time as the motorized scooter he needed to squire my aunt shopping and out to dinner. He issued the decree that the family should get together for reunion weekends at the beach; so my cousin coordinated the events and we all showed up ready for fun.

Along the way he found Catholicism again, his childhood faith, and explored that discovery with me, my sister and our families, all lifelong Catholics. We attended masses together and shared lots of special events like the Chrism Mass, Easter Triduum and face-to-face Confession. He allowed us to reacquaint him with the church since he'd grown up before Vatican II and, as a result, we shared quality time through the years that we wouldn't have had otherwise.

He crossed every T and dotted every I with finances and generally helped everyone he loved come to terms with the fact that his time was running out. He accepted the way each of his loved ones coped with his deteriorating condition; never with complaints or criticisms, only understanding. My uncle wanted to spare his family from making the difficult decisions, wanted to control as much of the process as he could.

And God generously granted him that privilege. Right to the very end.

My uncle decided to discontinue dialysis. He decided to go to a Hospice house for his last days, so family could spend quality time with him instead of dealing with the gritty reality of care giving. He asked his favorite priest to visit for his last Confession and Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick. He even chose the memorial cards for his service.

His only request was not to be left alone while he died. He wasn't. And it was humbling to see how many clamored to be by his bedside. Family. Friends. Acquaintances. Even the tellers from the bank that handled his business. He held court from that bed in Hospice house, and for four days people came and went, telling him how much he'd enriched and impacted their lives.

The hospice people were supportive, and very telling in their reactions. They'd come by and shut the door when the clamor began trickling down the halls, but whenever asked if we should limit the traffic as a courtesy to other patients, we were told in some variation: “Absolutely not! It's refreshing to see death as a celebration. Doesn't happen often enough.”

Yes, I'm going to miss him, but my faith tells me he's one step closer to our Lord, farther along on his journey to perfection. My faith also tells me I can continue to be a part of his journey. I can remember him in my prayers. I can have masses said for his intentions. My uncle believed this, too, which is why he gave me his rosary beads and Bible before he died and asked me to pray for him. And he'll never truly be gone; not when he lives on in the hearts and memories of so many.

The grace of a happy death.

That statement makes so much more sense now. So the next time I pray for this grace, I'll also thank God for blessing me with the understand that the grace of a happy death is proof of a life well-lived, a choice to live the way I one day hope to die, a choice that with God's help I can make.

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