One of the most precious of all experiences is being with a person when he or she is dying. Paradoxically, death clarifies so many things about life and the dying often generate community in ways that the living cannot. Today a group of us were with a young American soldier as he died. That group was a curious mixture of persons: A commanding officer with no church affiliation, an agnostic American doctor, two German doctors (of whose backgrounds I know nothing), a young American couple and myself, a Catholic priest. We were all there, for different reasons, to watch Sgt. Mark die.
Mark had been fatally injured in an accident two days previous and his life was being sustained by life support machines. The German doctors had now decided to unhook those machines since there was no longer any brain function and, according to German law, a person is then legally dead and a hospital need no longer use extraordinary means to sustain that life. His parents had been telephoned and had reluctantly consented to have the machines removed. They requested three things: that a Catholic priest be present, that an American doctor verify that Mark’s condition was truly hopeless and that Mark’s closest friend, a fellow GI in Germany, be present. The commanding officer gathered us and we met in his car on route to the hospital. It was awkward and strained. We were meeting each other for the first time, the situation itself was sufficiently tense, and we were very different kinds of persons.
The commanding officer was used to commanding and his attitudes and clothing showed it. The doctor was all business, talking of tests and legalities. Mark’s friends, Danny and his wife Patty, were in sharp contrast to the officer and the doctor. They were simple folk, casually dressed, religious and pious, down-to earth and very scared, praying and crying. However, they would soon enough show a courage which would help us all. I was the unknown priest, summoned for the occasion, not used to commanding officers or watching life support systems being turned off; also scared and praying. We arrived at the hospital where Mark lay; a boy of 22, in a foreign country, without his family, soon to die. The American doctor grimly checked the tests and retained that grimness as he nodded to the German doctors and to us. The German doctors approached me: “Jetzt – Should we do it now?”
I looked at Danny and Patty and we asked for some time to pray. The three doctors and the officer stood back. I clutched the book of rites and led prayers for the dying. Danny clutched Patty with one hand and Mark’s near lifeless hand with his other and we prayed like we’ve seldom prayed before: the prayers for the dying, the Lord’s Prayer, some Hail Marys. When we’d finished, Danny, a tall man (six feet five inches – most of it honest heart) put his head on Mark’s chest. He began to cry. I nodded to the German doctors; all business in their medical uniforms. Four or five turns of a valve and the machines stopped. It was as simple as turning off a heating radiator. When it was over, Danny’s tears stopped. Releasing Mark’s hand, he stood tall and pounded Mark’s chest: “Sgt. Mark, congratulations! You are the first of all of us to make it home! Goodbye!” He spoke the words loudly, with strength. Afterwards we walked from the room. Outside, through a glass paneling, we saw the German doctors slowly removing the machines and tubes. Danny, Patty and myself stopped for a last few Hail Marys. Then we hugged each other, dried tears and walked to the waiting room where we sat to compose ourselves and to wait for the officer and the American doctor to finish signing forms. There was a different atmosphere on route homewards. The commanding officer was less commanding, his tie was loosened considerably and so was his heart. The doctor now talked no more of tests and legalities, for we all talked of meaning and purpose in life. Danny and Patty no longer looked out of place in their denims and blue jeans. They clutched each other’s hands and the rest of us regretted only that for the sake of pride and proper appearance we were prevented from joining hands as well.
I was no longer awkward nor scared, and it felt oh so good to be a priest! There we sat, strangers, though not quite anymore, all so different, but now bound warmly because of what we had shared. Yes we sat now, seeing life and each other with a clarity and charity so seldom given. We had prayed for Mark and those prayers, I am sure, had helped him. But they had also helped us. It was a rare grace.
Congratulation, Sgt. Mark!