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Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

Golden, my 97-year-old parishioner, was ready to die. She invited me for a visit last summer to explain her rationale. Then shared many memories of her long life. She concluded, “I have done all I came to do, John. It’s time.” Tears rolled down my cheeks as I wondered if she was asking me for permission.

When I walked into the hospital on the day of her death, I paused in the hallway and I said aloud the four words I often speak in difficult times, “God be with me.” I then pushed open the hospital room door.

Golden looked at peace as she sat dressed in her favourite red dress. Her hair was freshly combed. She had had a manicure that week. Her necklace shone brightly around her neck. She looked radiant.

Her family and a few close friends gathered around her chair. She sat like an honoured guest at a party. People took turns sharing stories and memories. There was both laughter and tears.

I knew my role was to bring a sense of ritual and closure to her life and to guide the family in this sacred time. I asked the family to gather more closely around Golden as I wanted to lead what I call a “body blessing.” Religious or not, humans long for rituals and this form of blessing focuses our attention on gratitude, which gives us purpose in uncharted waters.

Golden nodded gently in agreement as she looked up at me. I first placed my hands on her head and asked, “What did you love about Golden’s mind?” There was silence and then someone said, “I loved her intellect. She was always learning. She just completed her last university course at 95 years of age!” Another family member said, “She always helped us with homework.” Her daughter piped up, “She was so wise – thanks Mom.”

When the responses stopped, I moved my hand close to her heart and said, “Golden had a huge heart, what did you love about her heart?” Her grandson spoke first, “I never heard a judgmental word from her mouth. She was compassionate and kind to everyone.” You could hear sniffles as those in the room nodded in affirmation.

I then reached for her wrinkled soft hand, “What do you love about her hands?”

“Mom was a quilter. We each have something she made us.” There was stillness, then: “Mom’s hands made the best apple salad ever.” Another said, “My mom caressed our hair when we were sad. That was her way of soothing us.” As this was spoken her grandchild reached up and caressed Golden’s white hair. Golden smiled as tears fell from her eyes.

“Now what about her feet?” I asked, as I knelt down and rubbed her feet. “Mom loved the sand between her toes. She loved to run on the beach and lay in the sun.” Golden laughed and agreed, “I love the warmth of the sun!” Another said, “She walked us all to school and she paced in circles cradling us when we were sick. She was tireless.” Another added, “I remember when we were kids she got us all dressed and took us outside and made us stamp Merry Christmas in the snow with our feet. Then we ran up to the 14th floor of her condo and took a picture. It was our Christmas card that year!” Everyone laughed and nodded. “That was the best card ever!”

As we closed this remembering, Golden said: “It is the love I feel in this circle, right now, from all of you, that allows me to let go and do this. Thank you for the love.”

It was quiet for a moment and then Golden turned to me and said, “I know what my job is when I get to the other side.”

I smiled and asked, “What’s that?” She looked up at me and said matter-of-factly, “I am going to make contact with each one of you!” She turned and said, “John, one day you will be walking down the street on a calm, windless day. There will be a sudden breeze on your back. That will be me!”

I smiled at her determination and said, “I can’t wait.”

I looked across the room and saw that the doctors were looking a little impatient. We all recited the 23rd psalm, Golden closed her eyes and spoke each word from memory.

I was thankful for these ancient words of comfort.

At “Amen,” the doctor came to her side and asked, “Are you ready?”

She nodded. The doctor placed a needle in her arm and Golden said, “Well, I hope this doesn’t take long, I am hungry!” We all laughed. The relief was palpable.

“Well,” I said, “the Bible has many images of the other side and one is a great feast, enjoy it Golden!” Slowly, she closed her eyes and whispered gently, “Thank you.”

And she died.

Only a few seconds had passed when we all heard a “ping” from someone’s phone. Her grandson piped up loudly, “That’s her! She made it! She is in!” We all laughed.

We stood, drenched in tears, gratitude and reverence.

When I left the hospital later that day I was exhausted and yet also felt strangely exhilarated. I was thankful for the ritual of a body blessing and the comfort it can bring. Death, like birth, is a mystery.

Dr. John Pentland serves Hillhurst United Church in Calgary.