Reflection: Ray's Deathbed—A Memorable Distinction
by Father Don Thomas
Since death is a reality with which we all have to cope at some time or other, we probably should talk more about it in the course of our lives as something to look forward to rather than as something to fear. Looking back at the early years of my life, I can honestly say that I learned more about death, especially from my mother, than I did in my seminary studies. As a little boy I frequently saw how my mother reacted to death when God took away from my parents my baby sister, Romayne, at the age of three months, then my brother, Frank, at the age of 18, then my sister, Mariclare, at the age of 19, and then my brother, Raymond, at the age of 43. Yes, she did question God's Will many times, but she always ended up accepting it.
Since my father's death in 1966 and my mother's in 1974, three more of my siblings have passed from time into eternity in the persons of Hank, Lucille and Eleanor. Three of us boys remain out of ten. In this reflection, it is about Raymond who died on November 8, 1962 that I would like to reminisce, for it was on the occasion of his death that I learned a most beautiful lesson that I have never forgotten, a lesson I am glad to share with you, a lesson from which I hope you also will derive encouragement and wisdom as you grow older.
In October of 1961, Raymond wrote a letter in which he revealed to me that he had cancer of the lungs. It was his wish to keep the news from Mom and Dad, and he kept telling them he was losing weight because he had his teeth removed and he was not eating well at all. He was told that he had about a year to live, and since I was a priest, he felt better about sharing the news with me before the others. He ended up in the Veterans' Hospital in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and that was about forty miles from home. I had permission to spend the last month with him and I took my parents to visit him every day, took them home and went back down until about midnight each day. Our whole family and his wife and four children were great about visiting him.
On the night of November 7th, Ray asked everyone to get out of the room, "except Donnie". When they left, I walked over to his bed and you may think that I was too abrupt with him, but keep in mind we had been visiting every day for a month. Standing next to his bed I said, "what's the matter, Ray, are you afraid to die"? And looking at me very directly he replied "No, Donnie, I am not afraid to die, but I am ashamed". Not afraid to die, but ashamed!
I have repeated those words so many times since 1962. As soon as Ray spoke those words I said to him immediately "what are you talking about, Ray? Ashamed to die"? He proceeded to say how he had so much to be grateful for—Mom and Dad, brothers and sisters, Joan and the four kids and so many other blessings; now I am going back to God after these 43 years and I feel like I have nothing to give Him after all He has given me". With tear-filled eyes, somehow God enabled me to say something like "Ray, you do not have to be afraid because God loves you so much, and you do not have to be ashamed at all. Being the oldest, you were so good to Mom and Dad when we were all little kids, and I remember how you used to help Mom bake the bread and wash the clothes and make the spaghetti for all of us; then you had Joan as your good wife and then you had the four beautiful kids, and both of you did a fantastic job with them; and then you joined the navy and served in the Pacific; Ray, you have a lot to be proud of and a lot to show God when you see Him; there is no reason to be ashamed". As happens so often to all of us, the one that we try to help ends up helping us more than we ever realize. He surely helped me and that is why I am still mentioning it in 2005, some 43 years later.
Not afraid to die, but I am ashamed. Over the centuries there have been so many who have said that and meant it. Even today we come across many who do not fear death and sometimes even pray that God will take them to Himself. Ashamed to die? I really do not know, but probably with the exception of babies and innocent children or mentally handicapped individuals, probably all of us can look back on our lives and regret some of the sins we have committed or mistakes we have made. Even when we are forgiven, we still feel some shame when we pause to think of how good and loving God has been to us in so many ways. Would it not be a most wonderful blessing if each of us, after making a genuine and sincere effort to avoid sin in the future, would be able to say to the priest, the doctor or nurse, or to a family member: "I am not afraid to die; neither am I as ashamed to die as I used to be".
In using our time well each day, we could make this possible by cooperating with the grace of God. We are special in His eyes, so let us all strive to use our remaining time well. Let us look forward to eternal life in the kingdom that our brother, Christ, has prepared for us—a kingdom of peace, a kingdom of joy and a kingdom of love. Like so many others, including Christ Himself, and more recently, Pope John Paul II, at least in my opinion, I feel that Raymond used both his life and death to touch the lives of others, especially my own.
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