I hold this knowledge in my own limbs as I move through my day, acting as normal as possible, but knowing death is imminent. It's a precious time. A sacred time. These are days, moments of privilege and re-ordered priorities, as family members recognize the closeness of Francis Liewer's passing.
Last Friday afternoon, in lieu of driving directly to Omaha, Nebraska, from St. Paul, Minnesota, to see my siblings, my husband and I changed routes and instead pointed our car to Norfolk, to St. Joseph's nursing home, where my grandfather had just been moved. It was a happy choice we made, shifting our course, and going to my hometown. My mother's voice the other end of the line -- tearful, weary, breaking in a rare occasion, after spending eight days next to her ailing father; Francois and I knew we were being called to grandpa's bedside.
At six months pregnant, I am not only emotional, but my body is larger than it's ever been, carrying baby and new weight, readying and making way toward giving birth. Tending to my grandfather's health brings all aspects of our human bodies and vulnerabilities into fuller awareness. Grandpa's thinning skin, his clammy fingers and touch, the bulging bed covers where underneath, I know, are further apparatus to aid him in blood and bodily fluid flow. I sit next to him at St. Joe's, hold his hand, moisten his dried, cracking lips with a damp cloth, and marvel at the proximity of age, death, wisdom, angels. Inside my own belly, baby Kiemde kicks and rocks, rolls over. The nearness of new life is almost enough to make me buckle: Grandpa's, my child's.
My dear friend Sr. Jill Underdahl recently wrote to me saying that, among other things, "St. Joseph is the patron saint of happy deaths." As a sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet in St. Paul, Jill shared this information about her order's namesake, expanding my prior knowledge of the saint. "Because it is imagined that both Jesus and Mary were present to Joseph at the time of his death, Joseph's death is called 'happy.'" This information makes me smile. In addition to being patron to carpenters, fathers, the universal church, Joseph is busy tending to the dying.
In my previous investigations regarding St. Joseph, I discovered a much cruder kind of patronage placed upon him: that of happy home sales. As I put my Juno Avenue house on the market two years ago, I did much research on this matter, and found a way to move beyond the superstitious "buy-a-St. Joseph-statue-and-bury-him-upside-down-in-your-backyard" action, to my own prayerful, ritualistic way of placing his figure in a sacred spot where I paid some serious homage. I looked on Joseph as father, foster father in some respects, tending to baby Jesus, holding this precious, innocent life: protecting, loving, guiding, nurturing the child from youth into adulthood. I meditated on the many ways that that kind of parenting, that kind of care could be akin to the process of letting go, releasing something, anything beloved, and letting it evolve, become anew.
Selling my house became a seriously spiritual action. I believe St. Joseph oversaw this process. My grandfather passing, is another spiritual action. Here again: I see, (hope, imagine, pray,) Joseph is overseeing this!
As Grandpa releases his body, lets go of his limbs, these human bones and muscles and sinewy tissues that make up his earthly form, and becomes pure Spirit, (as I so believe), St. Joseph is there. As his physical body betrays him in its functioning, I imagine a larger kind of liberation occurring. The tethers of his skin and bone form are retracting, and allowing something inside him to open up, be born anew.
In a few short months, I will give birth to a new baby. At this time, my husband Francois and I have discerned that our child will be delivered at a hospital in downtown St. Paul; it's one bearing the name of "St. Joseph."
Last Friday, holding my grandfather's hand, I looked into his eyes, and asked him if he was aware that we were expecting a baby.
"Yes. You are due on May 5th,"he announced. While he had the date wrong, his knowledge of the correct month Baby Kiemde is to emerge made me beam.
"Grandpa, I have a request: I want you to be there, at the birth,"I said, placing his hand on my stomach. "We will be at St. Joe's, just as you are now, with this saint overseeing things, but we'd like you there in your spirit, pure soul form. Can you promise this?" He smiled when I asked the question. "When our baby is born, he will know you; she will see you, and probably scream and cry. But you will witness this all, and help him or her come forward."
He grabbed my hand again before I left, and squeezed.
These are moments of life I'm clinging to as I lean toward all that is imminent, on the verge of shifting, coming forward, getting born.
In peace, prayers, contemplation,
Melissa Borgmann Kiemde