Endings and Beginnings

holy-week

He was much too old for lullabies, already a teenager. If he had been able to speak, he may have protested, but I doubt it. His mother lay in the hospital bed next to him, wrapped her arms around him. A few hours earlier, she had been full of anxiety and anger, lashing out at anyone who so much as hinted that her son was dying. But I did more than hint. I confronted her with the reality that he was coming to the end, and that he needed her now as much as ever. The anger exploded — then disappeared. And in her son’s last hours, she did as good a job of anyone I’ve ever seen at saying goodbye. She told him she loved him, that every day with him was a gift, and then for a painfully long time, she sang him to sleep. She made sure that the last sound he would hear was not beeping monitors or her anguished sobs or his own raspy final breaths, but that first sound — his mother’s voice, singing to him the same songs she had sung when he was a baby. It was such a heartbreakingly intimate moment that I felt like an intruder, but when I asked quietly if I should leave, she said no, and squeezed my hand. So I stood by the bed, one hand on her shoulder, bearing witness to the holy for what seemed like forever. I watched the sun rise over the steeples of downtown churches outside the large window, and knew that my shift would be ending. But still I stood, listening to a mother’s lullabies. And I thought of Jesus.

I found myself wondering about the lullabies Mary sang in Bethlehem. Surely there have been lullabies almost as long as there have been mothers to sing them. And I wondered if she sang them again at the cross. Did she try to make sure that the last sound Jesus heard was not angry crowds or gambling soldiers or cries of pain from those dying on the other crosses? Did she do her best to sing him to sleep? I get to see in the hospital so often how the end of life echoes the beginning. At times, it’s hard even to tell them apart. Maybe that’s why it isn’t hard for me to believe that the end of one thing must be the beginning of something else.

This week, Christians like me remember the last few days of Jesus’ earthly life. It was an ending, to be sure. I won’t minimize that. Easter means nothing if Good Friday isn’t also a reality. For me, the fact that Jesus really and truly died carries enormous weight. It is sometimes the only thing that allows me to do my job, because I believe that One who has experienced death walks with my patients not only to death’s door, where I must leave them, but through it to the other side. And what is there? I won’t pretend to know; none of us really does. But my belief is that it is a beginning. That’s what Easter means to me. It means that, as Frederick Buechner said, the worst thing is never the last thing. Every newborn baby must be terrified and traumatized, until hearing that familiar voice, outside the womb for the first time instead of from inside it. As scary and disorienting as every death is, I believe that it will all be okay, because in the end and in the beginning is Love, as comforting as a mother’s lullaby.

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