by Nelsa I. Elías
My uncle Ismael died Jan. 3 after a painful battle against cancer. He was my deceased father’s youngest brother. After Daddy passed away in 1995, I found myself reaching out to my uncle. I guess he helped fill a void created by my father’s untimely passing. Daddy and I were very close and he was only 64 when he left us.
Perhaps that is why I was devastated when I found out that my uncle was diagnosed with stage four of a very aggressive lung cancer. I would call him as often as I could to provide a listening ear, and to pray with him for healing. His courage, positive attitude, will to live and good sense of humor, despite the horrors of chemotherapy, recurring trips to the emergency room, and other setbacks, always amazed me. Even though he was suffering, he always found a way to make me feel special and loved.
The week after Christmas, my cousin Millie, called to tell me that my uncle had been rushed to the emergency room and that she was arranging to fly to New Jersey to be with him. I immediately made arrangements to visit. My priest friend and mentor who had recently lost his mother, offered to go with me to bless my uncle with the Sacrament of the Sick and to be there for us.
In the emergency room, I found a gold crucifix and chain in a plastic bag. The nurse noticing the bag in my hand commented, “He hasn’t let go of that since he got here.” I was surprised by what she said because my uncle had never talked to me about his faith. All I knew was that as a younger man he had been involved with the Cursillo.
A few days later when my uncle was transferred to hospice, I asked my friend, “Father, how can I help my uncle?” His response surprised me at the time; he said, “Tell him not to be afraid to let go and read to him Jesus’ promises from the Gospel.” The words shook me and reverberated in my heart and soul! Of course, he was right. The Gospel contains the truth of God’s promises for our salvation. What else could my uncle need?
The next time I went to the hospice I was better prepared, having asked the Holy Spirit for the strength and courage to be able to minister to my uncle. I prayed the prayers for the commendation of the dying with my uncle. Millie and my sister were present and prayed with me. We also sang to Mary, our Blessed Mother, asking her to pray for my uncle “now and at the hour of his death.” As we took turns holding his hand, telling him how much we loved him, and how much more he was loved by Jesus, there was a visible change in his breathing. He seemed more at peace. That night when I got home, Millie called to tell me that he had passed away. Despite the pain and shock, I remember thinking, “How powerful are the Church’s prayers! They helped my uncle let go of his life in this world and to go home to the Lord.”
I believe those prayers made a difference – for my uncle and for all of us present around his hospice bed. Our holding hands, praying with and for my uncle, created a sacred space in that hospice room that allowed God’s grace to come in and touch each one of us, bring us closer together and preparing us for what was to come.
Nelsa Elias is associate director of the Diocesan Pastoral Institute.