Spring can be a time of passing on, a time when the recently living pack up and move into the memories of those left behind. Perhaps that is a natural counterpoint to Autumn—when bare branches forget the boisterous buds that once staked out their claim on the future.
The time of passing on abides in the eyes and heart of the beholder.
I have been friends with three people who suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, and all have now passed on from this world. Paul Miller died last year; Kip died a few weeks ago, and Pat Simmons followed a week later.
Paul became more and more isolated in the crosswalk of physical disability and temperament. Parkinson’s cancelled his lift ticket into the mountains, which he loved to explore. Kip continued to venture out into the world until his final days, always attentive to those around him.
Pat, of the three, was the most devoted to her spiritual exploration of what gives life meaning. Painfully aware of the betrayals of the Catholic Church as an institution, in her final years of life her main activity was praying for everyone she knew and met. Living in an assisted living facility, she met many in need of her prayers. She spoke of a man who cried out in distress all night long and was dead the next morning; she could only hope that her vigil down the hall had helped him along in his painful transition.
I knew Pat for 30 years, including the final years of her journey. I am in awe of anyone who combines deep personal faith with a lively knowledge of how to get things done in the world. That capacity ran alongside the shadows of personal loss (the early death of her husband and her two youngest sisters, for whom she was a stand-in mother). Her devoted defense of New Mexico children who have been cast aside by families and society led her to the directorship of Big Brothers and Sisters; in this painful work she must have found balance as codirector of the Franciscan Center for Action and Contemplation.
What does a person of good heart, who has devoted her life to helping others, do when she herself is bound to walker, wheel chair and finally bed?
Pat seemed to go more deeply into her faith as her ability to venture into the physical world declined. Accepting what she could no longer do seemed to deepen her spiritual being as a natural continuation of a life lived with passion and energy.
One day she confided in me that, living in the close quarters of an assisted living environment, she was finding that some people were easier to like than others. I took this as evidence of her authentic encounter with those around her, as she pursued her honest journey to the very end.
Who really knows what comes next, when we leave our bodies lying inert upon the ground, like leaves scattered on the forest floor?
I like to think that Pat is now reunited with her sisters, brothers and husband, whom she remembered every day.
Perhaps those who have passed on before us feel supported when we remember them; but are especially glad if we keep living our present life as fully as we can, in remembrance of what they are no longer able to do themselves.