The message was terse and professionally uninformative: “This is Chandler Regional Hospital. Your son is here. You will need to come over.” A message from my son’s roommate gave me a few more details. “Gus spent all night vomiting, and this morning he was deaf. I had to take him to the ER.”
I couldn’t get any more information from the frantic calls I made before dashing out of the house. On the ride to the hospital, I reviewed all the possible causes: food poisoning, a mysterious bacterial assault, a tumor. It stuns me now to think that the most obvious reason never crossed my mind. For the last five years, my son has struggled with drug addiction. It began in high school, and it has haunted his life ever since.
Why didn’t I think of drugs when I got the message all parents dread? I suppose it’s because Gus had been sober for four months, attending AA regularly, living with a sober friend, and acting for all the world like a guy who had gotten his life back on track. It has regularly been my mistake, during times of Gus’s sobriety, to believe that he’d been “fixed.” I didn’t think about drugs because I thought that part of his life was over. Again.
When I got to the hospital, I found that Gus had overdosed on heroin. The drug had been mixed with lasix, a diuretic, which was causing severe dehydration and deafness. He was in the early stages of renal failure. The doctor was not sure whether his kidneys would stabilize.
Gus was put into intensive care, so I made quick calls to my husband and our priest. That night Gus received the Sacrament of Anointing. I had never heard the words of this sacrament before. They were shafts of light in what had become nearly complete darkness for me.
I thought, “These prayers can accompany the dead into eternity. They surround a sinner with the victory of the Cross.” I desperately needed this kind of comfort, because Gus had not practiced his Catholic faith for a long time. He was the prodigal who still thought the pigsty might be more fun than his Father’s house.
Gus pulled through, but because he came so close to death in the midst of hideously unredeemed circumstances, I have had some occasion to think about that kind of death. I have been sometimes comforted by the gospel story of the widow of Nain. Jesus happens across a weeping widow who has lost her only son. She asks and expects nothing of Him. Yet Jesus, moved by her tears, raises her son to life.
I have often wondered about that son. What sort of person was he before he died? He could have been a good son, but he also could have been a rebel, a profligate, a crook; could have been resentful, selfish, stubborn; could have been hell-bent on self-destruction. It’s impossible to tell. The mother’s tears don’t tell us anything but her grief, and nothing in the son’s life would alter that. In fact, if her son had lived a bad life, she would have cried even more.
Jesus’ pity for the woman meant life for her son. I am always moved by this. “This is what He’s really like? He’s touched by our own grief and tears?” This gives me profound hope for those who leave this life accompanied only by our tears, prayers, and love.
I don’t think I could face each day, which holds within it the possibility of this kind of death for my son, if I didn’t believe what we see at work in this simple story. It’s not that I expect my son to be saved by my tears, for each man must make his own choice of heaven or hell. But I see that Jesus is movedby our love for sinners. So many of His miracles of healing and resuscitation He worked because someone asked Him. Crying out for mercy on behalf of another is Jesus’ own work. He seems moved to see this in us, too.
I watched my son fade in and out as the priest gave him the sacrament. I knew he couldn’t hear us; I thought he might die that night. What if I didn’t see any visible sign of grace at work in his life? What if he passed into eternity as an overdosed heroin addict? I had to count on the loving mercy of Jesus. I could, because of the widow of Nain.
Some of the greatest moments in redemption history have come when men are asleep. Adam was asleep when God solved his only problem in the Garden: the need of a wife. Abraham was asleep when God made His first covenant with him for the Promised Land. Jacob was asleep when God renewed the covenant with him. Joseph was asleep when he saw his future in Jacob’s family. And the other Joseph was asleep when he was told to be Mary’s husband, father to Jesus.
Who knows what the mercy of God can do for a man when he is on the edge of the sleep of death, no longer able to communicate, but not yet dead? Could we hope that Jesus might appear to him to call for the decision of heaven or hell? Would anyone, seeing Him in that way, refuse His loving call to “arise” (Lk 7:14)? Ask the widow of Nain.