“It is finished”
As each hour passed, and it became apparent the Fr. Joseph would more than likely never wake up, the family continued to pray and keep watch. Fr. Joe was fortunate to have a tabernacle set up in his walk-in closet. A big picture of the Divine Mercy image hung above the tabernacle. An LED lighted flickering votive candle stood sentinel above the tabernacle. A soft kneeler and a large, overstuffed chair were placed in front for all prayer warriors. It was my favorite place to be when Fr. Joe was sleeping. From the closet, I could hear if he was awakening, but more importantly, I could feel the peace that only Christ can give.
As each hour slipped by, I prayed, I surrendered, and I prayed some more.
Many family members were able to come and be with Fr. Joe. Two of his nieces sang a beautiful Latin hymn for him. Sisters prayed by his side.
Around 11:00 p.m. Fr. Kevin said he would be offering Sunday Mass at Fr. Joe’s bedside. My parents, two siblings, two nephews, and a niece were present. Songs were sung, and Mass was celebrated while Fr. Joe slept before us, his breathing becoming more rapid. When communion time came, Fr. Kevin, ever so thoughtful of his older brother, shook some particles from the host into Fr. Joe’s mouth. Every so often, saliva would collect at the back of Fr. Joe’s throat, at which time he would have an immense-sounding swallow. After some time, I heard him swallow and knew he had received Jesus in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar for the last time.
Feeling Fr. Joe’s hot forehead, my sister Margaret took his temperature which read 105.6. We had already removed one of the two blankets that covered him. We wanted to hold his hands, so we slightly lowered the only blanket now covering him. We were surprised to see that his hands were folded in prayer position. Normally, when Fr. Joe would lie down to sleep , he placed his hands in such a way as to hold the blanket away from his wounded mouth and his wounded shoulder. I can never remember a time during his illness when he had them folded as they were now. We placed a crucifix in his hands, and then added his rosary that I would often use to pray with as he slept. Lastly, we put the front of the scapular that he was wearing next to the crucifix.
I got to thinking that Fr. Joe’s last attempt to hydrate was 1:00 p.m. A few years ago, a friend of mine contracted Guillaine-Barre syndrome, a sudden paralysis of the body. When she finally regained her ability to talk, she said how thirsty she had been and how she wished she could ask for water. I thought my brother had to be thirsty but did not have the energy to even speak. So I mentioned to Margaret that there was a lollipop-type sponge used for quenching thirst in a package near his bed. I suggested that maybe we should try to quench his thirst. She agreed and put the sponge in some water. She then placed it on his tongue and then around his wounded lips. I sensed he was still thirsty, so she repeated the procedure.
After Mass, we pulled up a singing version of the Divine Mercy Chaplet - a favorite prayer of our family. While praying, we would all touch his hands, his face, his feet - something we could never do while he was alive because of his painful wounds. One of his caregivers once brought up the fact that his hands never had wounds on them, and the likely reason was because his hands held the Body of Christ.
For some reason, the chaplet was on repeat, so after praying it once, we kept it rolling for a few more chaplets. We then searched on the computer for the Ave Maria. Again the computer would repeat between the Benedictine monks singing the Ave Maria to an order of nuns reciting the Ave Maria in Latin. We jokingly said that our older sister, Sr. Mary Agnes of the Immaculate Heart of Mary - a Carmelite cloistered nun in Erie, Pennsylvania, was with us.
Ironically, one of Fr. Joe’s caregivers, a young lady named Jordan, had spent the weekend with our sister in Erie. She was to fly back to Atlanta yesterday, but between flight delays and wrong turns on the highway, she didn’t make it back until close to midnight. The Carmelites, in honor of Lent, do not write or call until after Easter. So we were surprised - not really - to learn that Jordan came back with a letter from Sister to her beloved brother Fr. Joe. Jordan thought it was too late to bring the letter by the rectory, but God’s timing is always perfect. The letter was brought, and Fr. Kevin read our sister’s beautiful parting words to her little brother, Fr. Joe. The time was now around 1:00 a.m.
My parents are elderly and staying up past midnight or even 11:00 is a bit late. We encouraged my mom to rest in the side bedroom and promised her we would get her if anything changed. Fr. Joe’s often repeated request, unbeknownst to my parents, was to have both parents present at the end.
A while ago, Margaret had printed out a Resignation to Death prayer for us to pray quietly whenever we were with Fr. Joe or thinking of Fr. Joe. I had probably prayed the lengthy prayer only two or three times prior to last night. Something made me get up, go to my prayer bag, and find the prayer sheet. My copy looked a bit tattered, not because of usage, but because the water bottle I bring to school always leaks.
We pulled out our flashlights in the dimly lit room and sat on the floor around his bed, Dad in a chair beside him, and begin to earnestly and fervently pray the prayer of Resignation. It is a beautiful, beautiful prayer. An additional prayer to St. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus was written on the back of the prayer sheet, and we prayed that as well.
Upon finishing the prayer, we looked at Fr. Joe, and he appeared to be no longer breathing. I was caught off-guard - we all knew the inevitable would happen, but Fr. Joe’s indomitable spirit, his strong will to live, always seemed to win. My sister woke my mom, and we were now all gathered by his side. We all knelt up and touched Fr. Joe. When I put my hand on his forehead, he took a long gasp of air. It is said that the cause of death at a crucifixion is from exhaustion and asphyxiation. Fr. Joe, exhausted and barely able to breathe, had reached Calvary; he had reached his end.
After about six to ten seconds, another long gasp of air. While he struggled to breathe, I would repeat, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, have mercy on us. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, we trust in you. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, have mercy on Joe’s soul. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, have mercy on Joe’s body.” The whole time he was taking his final gasps, Fr. Kevin was praying prayers for the dying, a prayer of Apostolic Pardon, and so many more. My two medical sisters - a doctor and a nurse - felt for a pulse in his wrist and feet. Upon their touching his feet, he took one more long gasp, and that was it. All I kept thinking is this is how most people would want to die - not the suffering part, but the being surrounded by loved ones, celebrating the Mass, praying the Divine Mercy and other prayers, with a priest who happens to be your brother praying your soul to heaven.
At 1:25 a.m., my brother was hugged by Christ.
Shortly after Fr. Joe’s death, Fr. Kevin celebrated Mass for Monday, once again around his bedside. We sang songs before and after.
While alive, Fr. Joe, who appropriately was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, had wounds that would bleed out beyond the bandages. I would ask him if he wanted new dressings for his wounds or if he wanted a wet washcloth to cleanse the dried bloodstreams. He would always say no - just submitting to whatever happened to him. I longed to cleanse him, and now, after his passing, I could.
Margaret and Kathy trimmed his beard and mustache. Margaret cleansed the dried blood on his disfigured face. I cleansed his wounded feet and his legs. We laughed because he hated when we touched his ticklish, sensitive feet. Kathy, Margaret, Fr. Kevin, and I then surrounded his bed, grabbed the quilts under Fr. Joe’s body, and re-positioned his body centering him on the bed. I then remembered the frankincense in Fr. Joe’s bathroom and how my sisters used the oil on their little stillborns before their funeral, I got the oil and began to spread it on his head, his chest, his feet. We then opened the windows and turned on the lights, as the gates of Heaven were opening and our brother would finally see the Light of God.
P.S. Fr. Joe passed on the feast day of St. Matilda, the patron saint of parents with large families.
This is written by big sister.