I did not think I knew much about death. In high school, my headmaster reminded us constantly that young though we were, we were destined to die. Death was an abstract fact of reality for me, mainly a reason to pursue now what mattered most in life. And then I saw Richard John Neuhaus die.
At the end of October five years ago, he began to feel sick. The young people who worked for him at the magazine lived with him in a townhouse on East 19th Street, where we had daily evening prayer and Saturday dinner together. On All Saints’ Day, a Saturday, my colleague Amanda Shaw and I took him to the emergency room at St. Vincent’s Hospital after dinner. We got bored, and at one point I read to him about conscience from Newman’s Grammar of Assent. At another point I heard a clinking outside, only to discover a cowboy dressed in full chaps, boots, and spurs (this was the West Village, after all).
Six hours later, he began to reach for his IVs, impatient to leave. Amanda pleaded with him to leave them in until the nurses came, which, she assured him, they would do in just five minutes. Moments later she heard: “It’s been five minutes.”
That night was the beginning of a long string of visits to doctors, surgeons, and specialists. The diagnosis was never complete. Fr. Neuhaus had cancer in his lymph nodes, especially in his neck and around his lungs, but it was not clear exactly what kind it was. There was always one more test to perform, one more step to take before any kind of treatment could begin. In a little over two months, he was dead.
Most evenings Fr. Neuhaus spent in his apartment by himself, reading, watching movies, or listening to Bach at volumes usually reserved for hip-hop. Now that he was sick, he would invite us in to watch movies with him. One night we dug Groundhog Day out of his closet and laughed uproariously.
Another night he found a tape of an interview he did with C-SPAN’s book show on As I Lay Dying. He said he wanted to watch it to remember what he had said then. I assumed that he wanted to know what he had said before so he could better talk about his present condition. But when Richard Neuhaus on TV—authoritative, composed, pastoral—started talking about the people he had seen die, Richard Neuhaus sitting on the couch began to cry.
Tears quietly streamed down his face as he watched himself recount his work as a hospital chaplain in Brooklyn, the day he held the shiny bald head of a man named Albert who looked into his eyes, said, “Don’t be afraid,” and died. He was not looking for talking points, but for strength for the journey to come.
Our days moved on. One afternoon Amanda and I went to pick up communion wine from Fr. Neuhaus’ church, Immaculate Conception, a few blocks south of the house, and morphine from an Orthodox abbot who also had cancer—ecumenism of a less-expected sort. On the third Sunday of Advent, we had a service of lessons and carols. Twenty-two of us packed into the apartment, and when one friend suggested that we sing “Silent Night” a cappella, the air rang with the love of Christ. It was the last time many of our friends saw him.
His last public appearance was at Avery Cardinal Dulles’ funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Under the spotlights and surrounded by ruddy-faced Irishmen, burdened with emotional and physical pain, he looked like death. To see him process down the aisle, his face racked with weariness, was too much for me. After the Mass finished, I found my way to the palatial, many-roomed sacristy to wait for him.
The real possibility of his death overcame me and I began to cry, occasionally having to move to another room to try—and fail—to collect myself. Few priests seemed to mind. Fr. Raymond de Souza, who would preach his funeral Mass, told me later, “We’re used to seeing laypeople cry, but usually it’s because of something insensitive that we said.”
As he became sicker and sicker, we would have Mass at the dining room table in his apartment. A month before he died, he was in great pain, but still gave a homily to the few of us there, wincing every ten seconds as he did so. Like Paul, he was compelled to preach. Later, in his hospital bed, he gave a sermon that was totally incomprehensible except for “Christ and his Church” somewhere in the middle. He celebrated his last Mass with just the two of us, and I could barely keep him from consuming the host before he had consecrated it. But he still yearned to celebrate Mass.
On the day after Christmas, Fr. Neuhaus entered Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. His sister Johanna came, followed at the end by his older sister Mim. Banal Christmas cards from a previous occupant still decorated the walls, but our friend Monica brought one she had made, the front of which read, “Et lux in tenebris lucet, et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt.” She also taped cards of Our Lady of Czestochowa and John Paul II to his IV machine.
By then he suffered a paraneoplastic syndrome and a form of the dementia it sometimes brings. I brought one of the pictures of him meeting John Paul II so that he could see the pope, but also so that the people in the hospital could see that he was not just another difficult old man.
One day he started giving what appeared to be a lecture. He was stringing together complex sentences as he used to, embroidering them with subclauses to say exactly what he wanted to say. The sentences were grammatically correct, in a way, but never formed a coherent argument or point.
While speaking he would occasionally pause to hear a question from an imaginary interlocutor, say “Well,” and then clarify in that way he had of getting an idea perfectly balanced. He mentioned “Peter” a couple of times, which we took to mean Peter Berger.
A doctor came in to see how he was doing. She asked him what year it was. No real answer. What was his job, his calling in life? No real answer. Where were we? “Where are we? We’re at the University of Chicago!” he replied, as though it were a silly question. So he was at the University of Chicago giving a lecture, possibly with Peter Berger. Later we found out that he was scheduled to be at the university in a few months. As Amanda put it, “He has all the pieces in the right place, it’s just the wrong puzzle.”
On January 6, my colleague Stefan McDaniel and I went in the afternoon to relieve those who had been with Fr. Neuhaus. His face looked droopier than it had before. His eyes shone and he smiled when he saw us. He shook my hand. A couple of hours after we arrived, he went to sleep.
He would never wake up. Around 8 or 9 p.m., his heart rate and blood pressure dropped dangerously low but stabilized on their own. A nurse said that he could have a heart attack at any minute and that the family needed to decide whether to resuscitate him. We called Leon Kass, the former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, who said that the doctors should resuscitate him but not intubate.
The doctors wanted to do both, or neither. One doctor was impressed that we had Kass on the phone, while another did not understand the decision we made even after the editor, Jody Bottum, who was also there, tried to explain it according to the doctrine of double effect.
Around midnight, Fr. George Rutler, the only priest who had answered his phone, arrived to give last rites. Jody thanked him for coming out so late at night. He replied, “I was not ordained to play golf.” He read the rite in English and Latin and afterward remarked that he used the Douay-Rheims translation so that Richard didn’t have to hear the New American Bible. After a visiting doctor left, he said, “I don’t know why doctors make these things so complicated. The Lord wants Richard . . . soon.”
I left before 2 a.m. Some time around 3 a.m., Fr. Neuhaus’ heart stopped. The doctors got it started beating again, but his sisters recognized that this was the end and decided they would not try to resuscitate him again.
At 7:50, Jody called and told me to get everyone else up to the hospital because this was the end. In a solemn, controlled panic, I got everyone into a cab. “Please make it quick,” I told the cabbie. “We are going to someone who is dying.”
We went in to say our goodbyes. Through tears I told him how much of a father he had become. “Well, my friend,” I said, “the adventure ends here.” After so many doctors’ appointments, Masses, runs to the pharmacy, after so much, here we were. I told him I loved him and I left.
I thought that that was the end. So did we all. Every time the phone rang, we thought he had died. But the call never came.
Over the course of the day, many visitors came to say their goodbyes. A troop of the Sisters of Life filled his small hospital room and sang Vespers for him. In the evening, Joan and Monica Weigel, Amanda, and I returned to the hospital to spend the night with him in shifts. Most of the time we held his hands, prayed, or just kept watch. I had never spent time with a person in that way, in keeping a silent vigil with him, in just being there with him when he couldn’t respond. As he had written seven years prior, “When there is nothing more to be done, being there is all.”
There lay a man who had gone into the mouth of death and through some combination of the divine will and his own indomitable will had been snatched out. He had lain dying and lived to tell about it. Would he do it again? The watching and waiting was hard. His chest would rise, then fall. The pause. Would it rise again? It did. And then it would fall. And so on, until I looked away and focused on something else.
We said Compline and over the course of the evening sang him some hymns: “Come Thou Fount of Ev’ry Blessing,” “Lord of All Hopefulness,” and “Abide with Me.” A few weeks before, I had been listening to a beautiful, simple round called “There Are Angels Hovering ’Round.” That would pass through my head from time to time, sometimes almost bringing me to tears.
We would hold his hand and, from time to time, massage his cold feet. At some point in the night I held his right hand in a handshake. All our adventures together had ended with a handshake, and I wanted one more. Around 5 a.m., he was looking better. I left and went home to sleep. At 9:47 I heard the news: “Father passed.”
When I returned to the hospital, Fr. Neuhaus looked almost the same as he had before death, only now the oxygen mask and IV were off and, no matter how hard you looked, his chest never rose. Amanda never got up from the floor by his left arm, her head sometimes in her arms, praying. Deacon Vince Druding and Sr. John Mary de Souza, who had lived in the house with Fr. Neuhaus years before, led us in some prayers and the Office for the Dead. The family gathered one last time to bid our father goodbye.
At the end of the day, we came home for evening prayer, and Father wasn’t there. His chair sat empty, never to be occupied again. In the intercessions at the end, his voice with its slight warble was missing. For the first time we prayed “For the faithful who have gone before us, and especially for the servant of God, Richard John.”
Some minutes later I was rearranging the furniture, and there on the floor by the lamp, on top of the Divine Comedy and Sword of Honour and his other last reading, lay my Christmas card to him, with a Duccio Madonna and Child on the front. In it I had thanked him for letting me walk beside him through his illness, for it let me call him “Father” in a more real way than before.
The last time we visited his doctor at Sloan-Kettering, a month and a half into his illness and a little over a week before he entered the hospital for the last time, the nurse asked him the usual medical questions. Then she asked about his faith. She had been raised Catholic and had been taught that there was a purpose somewhere in suffering. Now that she had seen so much of it, she no longer believed in a personal God.
When she finished speaking, Fr. Neuhaus straightened up, shifting from being a sick old man to a shepherd of souls. He gave a beautiful explanation of the universe as founded on and animated by love, a love that was being itself and that sustained all other things in their being. If this love lay at the center of existence, then all would be made right in the end. She thanked him and departed.
I told him that I would remember that, and that it was good to see him again in his usual mode as a priest. Fr. Neuhaus gave a wan smile. “That’s what I was born to be, and to do.” And that, in the end, is what he was most of all to me, and to so many others.
Nathaniel Peters, a former assistant editor at First Things, is a doctoral student in theology at Boston College.