Life's Final Journey

Read this story. I mean it. You're already wasting time with my blog, so go ahead, click away.

One of the reasons I write about religion is the hope to one day to do pieces like the one the LA Times did today on Taking Life's Final Exit.

Valerie Reitman weaves the story of her brother's last few days of life, including moments when he was sure he was on a journey to places as far away as Australia--at least in his mind--with the stories of similar journeys taken by other dying patients.

Bedridden after being rushed to the hospital for what would be the final eight days of his life, Kenny casually mentioned that he was visiting Detroit. It was a rather odd place for him to be traveling — even if only in his imagination — because the hospital was near home in suburban Philadelphia and he didn't have any ties to the Motor City.

But it was near a border, a border he seemed intent on crossing, be it real or metaphoric.

"How far is it to Canada?" he wanted to know. "Where's the map?"

Though very weak, Kenny, 45, intermittently recognized and chatted lucidly with family gathered by his bedside. But he would drop in news of his varied travels: He had gone skiing one afternoon in Australia, he told us, stopped by North Carolina another day, and more than once had been "stuck in passport control."

It's a hauntingly beautiful piece about the journey every one of us takes. There are heart-wrenching letters from Kenny's kids, about the pain of letting God, and stories of conversations with others, long dead, who seem to be present with those who are dying.

I reread aloud to him the beautiful letters Zach, Louise and Jess had written, thanking him for being such a wonderful father and telling him how much they loved him. More than likely, it was concern for them that was keeping him from letting go.

Here's how it closes.

"Losing you is going to be really hard, but you need to stop suffering …." Jessica wrote. "And don't feel bad that you're going to be leaving us, OK? I love you so much, Daddy. I will miss you so much. You will always live on in spirit. Goodbye, Daddy. Your daughter forever with love, Jessica." And she drew five stick figures, with a caption, "We will always be a happy family."

He started to cry. "Oh Val, what am I going to do?" But a half-minute later, it was as if, mercifully, he was somewhere well beyond the gravity of it all. He stopped crying and asked quizzically, "Val, where are we?"

Is there anything he wanted me to tell his wife and kids for him, I asked, a redundant question because he had often told them how much he loved them.

"No," he replied, "I'll write on the plane."

Amen to that.


Bush and Hitler??

Writer and columnist Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest from Chicago, has been visiting Berlin—a trip which provoked this column comparing the US to Germany in the 1930s when Hitler came to power.
Though Greeley takes pains to say that he doesn’t think President Bush is a Nazi, he comes often close to making the comparison. Why—because the events of September 11, and the way in Iraq, have unleashed “a dark side” of America.
He writes:

What is this dark side? I would suggest that it is the mix of Calvinist religious righteousness and
“my-country-right-or-wrong” patriotism that dominated our treatment of blacks and American Indians for most of the country’s history. It revealed itself in the American history of imperialism in Mexico and after the Spanish-American War in the Philippines. The “manifest destiny” of America was to do whatever it wanted to do, because it was strong and virtuous and chosen by God.

Today many Americans celebrate a “strong” leader who, like Woodrow Wilson, never wavers, never apologizes, never admits a mistake, never changes his mind, a leader with a firm “Christian” faith in his own righteousness. These Americans are delighted that he ignores the rest of the world and punishes the World Trade Center terrorism in Iraq. Mr. Bush is our kind of guy.

The column was the subject of an angry discussion between some co-workers over coffee this morning, who thought it went too far. If it's no too far, it's certainly close.

Here's one other point that Greeley made:

This is a time of great peril in American history because a phony patriotism and an America-worshipping religion threaten the authentic American genius of tolerance and respect for other people.

Greeley piece evoked a lot of support at the Smirking Chimp and got hammered at

I think he's in the right church, but maybe the wrong pew as they say. The Hitler comparison just never works. But the questions behind the Greeley piece are crucial.

Here's a few of them:

  • Does God love America best?
  • Does God want to bless America?
  • Is America the "new Israel" as some of the early Pilgrims saw it, or a city of a hill with a special destiny as Presidents Bush and Reagan see it?
  • What's the role of religion in critiquing the state?
  • How does Christianity, which originated as a subversive faith whose leader was executed for causing trouble, balance its allegiance to both its state and its God?

I've not read this week's Time cover story yet but I hope it at least gets into the way Americans answer these questions.


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