“What if you die overseas and I’m not there,” my mom said when I told her I had joined the Marines. I laughed and said that even if I were a civilian and died in the United States she most likely wouldn’t be there. Still, she worried that one day she would get a call saying that I’d been killed or was dying far from home.
My mother worried for nothing. Instead, over a decade later, I was the one who got the dreaded phone call.
“Mom’s not expected to live much longer,” my younger brother said. “You might want to come home.” I had just arrived in Okinawa and had to fly back to mainland Japan. As I waited another three days for the next plane back to the United States, I began to wonder if I’d make it home in time.
Two years earlier, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, my brother built a room onto his house so that she could live with him and his family. The past few months had been especially hard on them. The constant care, the weekly trips for the chemotherapy treatments to a Dallas hospital, two hours each way, the anxiety of watching her get worse, had worn them down.
When they picked me up from the airport they tried to be warm, but our meeting was strained. On the ride home they made clear to me—politely but unmistakably—that the prodigal son would be expected to take his turn shouldering the burden.
I hadn’t seen mom since she was diagnosed. The red-headed, vibrant woman had been replaced with a bald, weak shell of a human being. Our reunion was awkward and bittersweet.
I masked my discomfort by falling into a regular routine. At night I’d sit on her bed, prepare her medicines, including the morphine she needed for the pain, and then swab the shunt in her chest with rubbing alcohol. Concern about an infection seemed to be an absurd worry when the tumors were destroying her from within. But I performed the task with the utmost care and pretended that it made a difference. We would make small talk as she drifted in and out of sleep.
Four or five nights after I had returned home, I began loading the needle with morphine when I felt a strange impulse, similar to the urge to jump that overcomes you when you stand on the edge of a bridge. An extra dose, I thought. That is all it would take. My family would wake in the morning to a sense of guilty relief and the welcome release of dammed up grief.
There would be no autopsy, no questions. No one would know. An extra dose of morphine and the waiting and the pain and the suffering and the dying would all come to an end.
I sat with the syringe in hand, watching her labored breathing. My mother was dying, and dying in pain. And I could make it stop.
Although my mother had experienced suffering and pain many other times in her life, I had never before been tempted to end her life. What had changed that had made me consider, however fleetingly and out of a sickeningly misplaced sense of compassion, usurping the role of God? A wave of revulsion washed over me as I realized I had been tempted because I had forgotten a simple truth: The dying are still the living, and their inherent worth is not diminished simply because their remaining moments on earth are few.
After that night the routine changed. I’d say a prayer and carefully measure out the correct dosage—sometimes slightly less just to be safe. I stayed for three weeks, giving the shots, cleaning the shunt, making small talk, attempting to make my mom as comfortable as possible. Mostly, though, I would watch her while she rested and wait with her while she endured the pain.
We made it through Thanksgiving and it became obvious that she wasn’t finished living. My leave was running out and I returned to Japan. Mom held on for several more weeks before passing away peacefully in her sleep.
It was only after her death that I could fully appreciate the casual lesson she had taught me. She had once been a hospice nurse and had cared for dozens of people as they began to die, staying with them to the end. I once asked her what the job entailed. “Mostly waiting,” she said. “You just stay with them and make them comfortable. Let them know they are not alone.”
Her words reminded me of Jesus and his followers in the Garden of Gethsemane. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells three of his disciples: ““My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” (14:34). Then, going a little further into the garden, he prayed that the cup be taken away from him.
And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy, and they did not know what to answer him. (Mark 14:37-40)
The disciples provide an example—or rather a counterexample—of what is expected of the rest of us when God has sent us to comfort the dying. The duty of friendship required that the disciples provide the solace that can only come from bodily presence.
They were not expected to hasten the end of their master’s suffering or even to suffer with him. Their task was merely to relieve his despair and loneliness simply by being watchful and near. Similarly, our task, as my mother had explained to me, consists mostly of waiting, of watching, letting those passing from this work know they are not alone.
As the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper reminds us, loving a person is a way of saying “it’s good that you exist; it’s good that you are in the world!” Those who are nearing the end of lives need to know that it is good that they exist, that it’s good that they are still in the world. And they need to know that we are with them, waiting and watching, till the end.
Joe Carter is web editor of First Things.