I nearly died – a couple of months ago – from a really bad case of COVID. No, I didn’t get the vaccine. It bothered me that the tissue of an aborted or miscarried fetus was used to develop and test at least some of these vaccines, and I dithered one way and the next, trying to find a valid reason to either get the vaccine or not. I must admit that one of my core traits came into play as well: procrastination. It wasn’t two weeks after talking to my doctor about the pros and cons of the vaccine that I contracted COVID.
I wasn’t just stay-in-bed sick… I was have-your-son-take-you-to-the-hospital sick. By the time I got to the hospital (the wrong one at first since I get my medical care through the Veterans Admin.) I was so sick I couldn’t stand up – could barely sit up in the wheelchair in which they brought me in. They asked me, “Do you have pain?”
“Do you have a ‘booming’ headache?” I wasn’t too sure what they meant by that, but ‘looking within’, I did discover that my eyeballs and eardrums were swelling and shrinking in time to my labored heartbeat.
“Okay, just wait here.”
Finally they shuffled me into an ambulance and drove me the two miles to the Veterans’ hospital. They stuffed me into a tiny room which evidently hadn’t been used in a while: I made this determination after one of the nurses said, “What is wrong with this bed? I can’t get it to go down!” Then, glory of glories, two things happed which gave me the greatest relief: They hooked me up to oxygen – I could finally catch my breath (and my snot bubbles dried up) and; they carefully led me to the bathroom – no need to explain the relief I got from that. Then they placed me in an adult diaper and tucked me in.
I was in the hospital for twelve days, getting the tiniest bit better each day. At first I was given what I later found out was a massive amount of ‘heated, high-flow oxygen’. It basically came blasting through my canula, forcing oxygen into my poor lungs even when I was exhaling. (It worked and later I was weaned down to the amount of oxygen that could be handled by a home oxygen concentrator.)
Then there was the food – but that was actually pretty good! My favorite was the ‘hamburger’ which looked, smelled, and tasted nothing like a hamburger – but was really good. I did my best to be a ‘good’ patient – being polite to everyone who came into my room and even writing little ‘thank you’ notes to the kitchen crew on the menu selection sheet for the next day. The kitchen liked my notes so much that I started getting ice cream along with breakfast! Not a usual selection.
On the second or third day, I texted my Dominican sisters and brother to tell them what was going on. Rene texted back right away. She reminded me that I really should have the Anointing of the Sick. (Didn’t they used to call that Last Rites? Huh.)
I hadn’t really thought about the possibility of dying. I wasn’t afraid (strange that my greatest fear about dying is being afraid). I wasn’t regretful or sad. I was, I think, just… waiting. That night, my respiratory therapist told me with great enthusiasm, “You’re going to make it! I know you’re going to make it! Do you know why? Because you want to live!” I want to live? That was news to me. Though not burdened with dire trials as many are, I had never relished living. I remember as a teenager, looking at an old, tottering, white haired woman. I envied her… because she was so much nearer ‘the end’ of all this than I was. Of course God could always throw a bus at me any time and I would happily precede even those on their death beds. I had, I think, kind of felt like St. Paul – you know the verse:
For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, [for] that is far better. Yet that I remain [in] the flesh is more necessary… (NABRE, Phil 1:20-24a)
I texted my parish priest and asked if he would Anoint me because I was pretty sick. He was there within minutes of my text. I can’t but admire him for coming – in truth, it was an act of bravery. I was, of course, on the “COVID Floor” of the hospital – no visitors, you know. He came in with a face mask on and those blue gloves instead of the ‘CDC space suit’.
It was just us in my little room. He pinched off the tip of his glove on his index finger and thumb. He then opened a tiny jar with the holy oil in it. The scent was so warm, subtle, and comforting! He put some on the palms of my hands and my forehead and I just felt so relieved of all worries, I felt I didn’t have to struggle any more… I just had to rest and wait with the mildest of curiosities, to see how things would turn out. I share with you now the fruits my my contemplation. I thought, ‘Huh. I guess I really do believe this stuff.’
It may not sound particularly profound, but like all of us, I have my faith, but I also have my doubts. They’re like potholes in the road. Some of them I see and avoid, but a significant number sort of sneak under the tire and give you quite a jolt. Okay, I would think, that’s a Doubt which I can neither prove nor disprove… therefore – it doesn’t matter. Keep on driving.
But this Anointing of the Sick thing showed me something I hadn’t realized before. See, I had decided to believe all this Jesus stuff, this Catholic stuff. I’d made up my mind. But what haunted me was that I’d made decisions like this before… and been wrong. I wasn’t sure I could trust my ‘gut instinct’ – but I’d decided and I was darn well going to follow through – but I’d been wrong so many times before, what made this decision any different? That is where the tire meets the pothole!
After being Anointed though – I ceased to doubt myself and my decision – it all just drifted away. I hadn’t so much doubted the veracity of Jesus or even the Catholic Church… I had doubted my ability to make a true and good decision regarding them. But my reaction to being Anointed was so smooth, so calming, and… right, that the pothole-doubts were just – there. They were part of the road but not a part of me. I could chunk through them or swish around them, it really didn’t matter. They were just there. I knew… I know what I believe and – thank God – I know that I really do believe it.
What a relief. If I have to live some more – though that bus could come flying through the air a squash me at any time – then this is the way to do it. I somehow always knew that ‘… to die is gain…’ but now I truly know that ‘… to live is Christ… ‘. And I’m okay with that. At last.
Catherine Lambert, O.P.