I had never heard the phrase until I spent some time visiting a hospice center, and it always struck me as incongruous. While everyone in their care was dying from one thing or another, they referred to patients who had shifted from slow and steady decline to the stage where the body starts to shut down as “actively dying.” Unlike a normal hospital, the hospice rooms had no monitors steadily tolling the patient’s heartbeat or screaming for attention when vital signs change, so the evidence of this new phase varied – perhaps a particular weakening of the breath, a lack of blood flow to extremities, or an inability to keep the patient conscious. This stage could still last for days, and the more I witnessed such a decline the more this “active” part of dying seemed oddly named.
In a certain sense, all death is passive. It comes about when the human body can no longer fulfill its life-sustaining functions because of disease, trauma, or simple weakness. Unlike the acts of speaking or running or jumping, the hospice patient’s “active” dying is something that happens to him, not something he does. We cannot simply will our body to stop functioning in the way we can will to raise our right hand. The truly human acts related to dying are always indirect. For good or for ill, they are only preparatory for a moment that we never fully control.
This thought struck me profoundly on my last visit to Fr. William Augustine Wallace, O.P. I had visited Fr. Wallace many times over the last four years, but by the time I first met him his Alzheimer’s had limited us to nothing more than a superficial conversation. There was a certain passivity on his part in all of our interactions, usually involving me saying something to get some response from him. Just walking into his room always drew a smile, and I would bring up his time in the Navy, his time as a priest, his teaching, or his work in natural philosophy, hoping to get a look of recognition and a few words, which usually trailed off incomplete. Early on I could ask for his blessing and he would gladly, if haltingly, oblige, but eventually I had to settle for leading him in the Our Father or a part of the Rosary.
A little over a week ago we got the news that he was declining – in hospice terms, actively dying. After compline, about ten of us brothers visited his room as he lay on the bed, eyes closed, breathing slowly, and clutching the rosary that one of the sisters had placed in his hands. He had already received the Anointing of the Sick, so a priest prayed aloud the Commendation for the Dying. He spoke loudly so that Fr. Wallace might still hear him, but I noticed no signs of recognition. After singing the Salve Regina, we decided to pray a decade of the rosary. None of us who were there could claim to have been his friend, or even to have known him much at all, but I remember thinking that I would like to stay with him overnight, hoping that at least one of his brethren could be with him in case he did not make it until morning. By the end of the decade the slow breathing had stopped. Fr. Wallace had died surrounded by ten of his Dominican brethren praying the Rosary.
Given the passive and reactive nature of our interactions over the years it is hard to imagine that he was actively holding off the physical shutdown of his body for some particular moment like this. It was truly a beautiful moment of Divine Providence. A moment hours, days, even years in the making, most of it out of his or anyone’s control. Still, Fr. Wallace’s decline over the years was simply a longer, drawn out version of what leads up to any death. We can never really be sure when death will come or whether we will truly have the time or the power to prepare ourselves when it becomes unavoidable.
The Church has always encouraged the faithful to reflect on, to pray about, and to prepare for our own death. This is not a morbid and depressing suggestion but a humble recognition that we will all face death and that the way we face it has serious consequences. Further, the Church encourages us not to take on this task alone but to draw on the support of our fellow Christians and, most especially, the saints. They have gone before us through death to eternal life, and we can trust that they will act on our behalf even when we cannot.
The last thing I remember Fr. Wallace doing before he was actively dying was faltering along as we prayed a decade of the Rosary, the same prayer we were praying the moment that he died, insistently calling upon the help of our Blessed Mother: Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
Image: Alonzo Cano, Death of St. Joseph