Jody needed me. Not because no one else could help. She asked for me. Jody is dying of cancer, too early in life, but two decades after being told her previous cancer was terminal.
This once-vibrant mother and grandmother asked if I would come to her bedside and pray for her, with her, over her. The request came, not directly, but via someone closer to her than I.
"Jody wants to be anointed," Joanne told my wife. "I want Al to do it." Joanne's requests are the gentlest sort of commands. But not to be denied.
"Anointed" is a shortcut term for the Catholic Sacrament of the Sick, dating back to the letter of St. James in Apostolic times: "Is anyone sick among you? Let her call for the elders of the Church, and let them pray over her and anoint her in the name of the Lord." Normally, this sacramental anointing is administered by a priest.
Jody and I were an awkward fit, hardly a Kodak® moment. She is not a Catholic, and it had been twenty-six years since I'd performed what is considered a "reserved" priestly function. I honored her request without hesitation, but with that awkward and too familiar "what am I doing here?" feeling. For the sake of good form, I needed only to clarify that anyone, lay or clergy, Catholic or not, could fulfill Jody's need for bedside prayers. But for Jody it wouldn't have been the same. She wanted to be anointed, the way Catholics do it. And she wanted me guide her through this rite.
My wife and I arrived at Jody's house as the Sunday evening sun receded in quite ordinary late-summer fashion, as if it had already spent this year's store of gold-to-purple twilight shows in exotic island resorts. Joanne, the emissary of Jody's request, arrived with us, along with her daughter Sarah.
Feeling shy, as I always do in these situations, I hung back, seeking invisibility, as the women greeted Jody's daughter and family, most of whom were strangers to me. Others of unspecified relationship to Jody were present also. I thought to myself how like ancient times this was, where even life's most intimate moments played out in public view.
"Mom's not doing well today," Terri said, tilting her head toward the open front door of Jody's suburban tract home. "And to top it off, our indoor cat ran away last night. Amy and her dad have been searching frantically all day. She's had Muffin all her life. It's more than I can deal with."
The ashen-faced seven year old clung to her mother's side. Strands of blond hair fell like twisted coils over and around her shoulders. My insides shriveled. My inadequacy to deal with this family's grief expanded like a balloon. This child soon to lose her beloved grandmother had also suffered the sudden loss of her lifelong friend and most comforting companion.
Inside, even more people milled around Jody's hospital bed which confiscated nearly all the living room floor space. I wasn't sure if these were casual visitors or intimate invitees to the ritual about to unfold.
In true liturgical fashion, we began by "gathering the folks" and "telling our stories." We shared memories of bygone, happier times. Ours was of Jody, as a beautiful young woman interpreting for the many deaf and hard-of-hearing people in attendance at our wedding, one year short of a quarter-century ago.
A main attraction at Jody's bedside was Sarah's six-month-old Kenzie--she of the flaming hair, ice-blue eyes and endless smile, evidence that Irish genes had dominated the Italian contribution to her DNA.
At an unspoken signal, attention turned to me and the yellow sheets I held in my hands--a ritual for the sick and dying, pieced together from random websites. I had chosen a passage from Luke's gospel, Jesus curing a blind panhandler. In my reflection on the scripture, I reminded all of us that Jesus never gave folks just what they thought they needed--but always more. All the blind beggar wanted was his sight restored. He got that, plus the insight and desire to follow along as his healer's disciple.
When I posed the question, "Jody, what do you want today?", she smiled in that trademark way that radiates from her inner goodness, but kept her desired outcomes to herself.
I took a small vial of consecrated olive oil that had belonged to Joanne's mother--an anonymous saint if there ever was one. I placed a drop of oil on the pad of my thumb and made the sign of the cross on Jody's forehead. "Through this holy anointing, may the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up." With another drop, I signed the palms of her hands. "Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy help you, with the grace of the Holy Spirit."
All that remained of the ritual was to bestow a final blessing on Jody and the others assembled around her bed. Instead, Amy burst into the room, tears streaming down her cheeks. My heart sagged under the weight of my premonition, The cat's dead.
"We . . . found . . . Muffin," the child managed. Her tongue and brain struggled to manufacture coherent words. She ran to the side of the bed and leapt into her grandmother's arms. "Muffy's alive!"
No one had to say it. I had become the unwitting prophet of one of life's great mysteries. God who is profligate in generosity had brought healing peace to a dying woman's heart and speechless joy to a little girl suffering double punches to the gut from what had to seem a cruel and most unfair world.
I woke in the middle of the night, sorting and assembling the pieces of this life-and-death moment in which I had played a minor role.
Jody will die, despite our prayers for physical healing, though signs of spiritual and psychic restoration were evident.
A family will have to let her go eventually, after caring for her in as loving a manner as humans are capable of.
There's a cat who has a new appreciation of hearth and home, and is unlikely to stray again.
A little girl named Amy will survive a great loss and grow to become--who knows what?
And I? I am in awe once more at the cycles of this miraculous experience we call "life."
* * *
[Author's Note: That very night, Jody slipped into a coma from which she never awoke. She died three days later. Names have been changed for his public viewing of a very private moment.]