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Joe McKamey, larger than death

O God who, by the Passion of Thy Christ, our Lord, hast loosened the bonds of death, that heritage of the first sin to which all men of later times did succeed: make us so conformed to Him that, as we must needs have borne the likeness of earthly nature, so we may by sanctification bear the likeness of heavenly grace. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen. Good Friday, Mass of the Presanctified (Roman Rite, Extraordinary Form).

We got up at 4am on Thursday, 9 April to leave for the airport at 5am (God bless you, Laura Willms) to catch a 7am flight. We arrived in Seattle at 10:30am, picked up the rental car, dropped things off at Megan’s mom and stepdad’s house, had lunch, and then headed off to Poulsbo.

The last time I had seen Joe was back in August. He was suffering from a bit of jaundice, and he got tired a bit more easily than he otherwise would, but he was still largely the same large man who played drums with abandon, hated to have people touch his truck, and toasted our wedding as Vito Corleone. Megan’s stories and pictures from her trips out to the Northwest over the last charted his decline for me to some extent, but this was the first time I had actually seen him with my own eyes.

He lay in a hospital bed in his and Donna’s bedroom, and he really was just sleeping. Donna, Megan’s stepmother, said that the last time he had been lucid was Sunday. Every so often, he would appear to open his eyes for a half-second, or grunt like he was trying to respond to something you said, but such moments were fleeting. Physically, he was a shell, much shrunken and withered from what I remembered — a sixty-two year old man who could believably have passed for eighty-two or even ninety-two. Still, he was peaceful, it was clear he wasn’t in any pain, and if it makes any sense, it also seemed clear that he was in the room with us, he just was mostly no longer located in the body. He was tied to it, yes, maybe we could say even held back by it, but he was already mostly gone. The dimmer switch was already pretty much all the way down; it just hadn’t clicked off yet. The only reliable reaction he gave was when water was sponged over his lips; it’s hard to say if that was reflex or not.

We spent a couple of hours with him, as well as talking to Donna. It was clear that it wasn’t going to be long; in my heart of hearts I was going to be very surprised if he made it another day. Before we left, Megan told him, “Dad, I know you’re going to do whatever you damn well please anyway, but you have to hold on till tomorrow, because all of your kids are going to be here.”

Thus saith the Lord: In their affliction they will rise early to Me: Come, and let us return to the Lord, for He hath taken us, and He will heal us, He will strike, and He will cure us. He will revive us after two days: on the third day He will raise us up and we shall live in His sight. We shall know and we shall follow on, that we may know the Lord. Hosea 6:1-3, read on Good Friday, Mass of the Presanctified (Roman Rite, Extraordinary From)

We headed back to Megan’s mom’s house, where we were planning on staying that night. Teague, Megan’s older brother, arrived. We settled down with a nice Trappist ale for what was intended to be an evening of familial reflection.

Then we had to take me to the emergency room.

The really short version is that I smacked my head but good on the very sharp corner of a kitchen cabinet while trying to get around a couple of people who had no reason to be concerned about the height of said kitchen cabinets. I managed to hit it at just the right angle and just the right speed, and within a couple of seconds I had a perfectly-formed Y-shaped gash on the very top of my head, and I was bleeding like a stuck pig. My experience with head injuries is that they’re gushers for a minute or so and then you’re done; well, this didn’t happen. I just kept bleeding, and within a couple of minutes I was also getting pretty foggy and confused. Everybody still had the Natasha Richardson tragedy in mind, so it was off to the emergency room we went. It was a reasonably short trip to the ER, two hours, and all they wound up doing was, literally, gluing me shut. This meant I had a glob of pharmaceutical superglue (“Dermabond“) in the middle of my hair for the next few days and had to shave my head to get it out, but that was okay.

We got back to Megan’s mom’s house, and setting down at 12:45am after what had been nearly 24 hours on the go (taking into account the three hour time difference between Seattle and Bloomington), we crawled into bed.

At about 1:50am, the phone rang. In the still, small hours of Western Good Friday, Joe was gone. Donna was up at one in the morning listening to him breathe as she had been for the last several nights, and eventually his breath took on an irregular rhythm for a few seconds; then, as quickly as his breathing had changed, it simply stopped.

He hadn’t waited for his kids to gather around him. Megan said later, “I think he wanted it to just be he and Donna.” I think she’s probably right.

O my God, I shall cry by day, and Thou wilt not hear: and by night, and it shall not be reputed as folly in me. Psalm 21:2, read on Good Friday, Mass of the Presanctified (Roman Rite, Extraordinary From)

The next twelve hours or so were absolutely extraordinary. We all headed over immediately, and eventually all of the aunts and uncles (save a couple of who had to come in from out of town) and several of the cousins also were there. There were tears, there were full-body-wracking sobs, there was cursing, there were screams that were some of the most primal I have ever heard, there was constant cradling and kissing of Joe’s too-small head and hands, there were brave faces that withered over time, there were irreverent jokes. Megan and I sang “Eternal Memory” at Joe’s side.

And, inevitably, this being a McKamey family gathering, people started cooking, drinking coffee, and talking. This was a very, very, very good thing.

The hospice folks came to pick up Joe a bit after noon. We all realized that this truly would be the last time we would see even his shell on this side of the veil, and everybody desperately gave to Joe whatever they had left to give him. They tell the family to be someplace else while they take away the body; I think that’s probably pretty wise.

The rest of the final day that Joe McKamey had begun alive was pretty subdued. We ate, we drank Scotch (18 year old Glenlivet, which I bought because I thought 18 year old Macallan would be a bit excessive), we talked.

Eventually we slept.

Saturday morning Donna said through tears that it was harder. “Yesterday was just a continuation of the last day of his life,” she cried. “Today he’s just not here at all.” She was right; it was the first time we had all woken up to a new, permanent reality. Megan’s two year old niece Sacha asked, “Where’s gampa Joe?” “In heaven,” Donna told her gamely, but Sacha kept asking, not understanding.

Megan and I found an absolutely delightful and welcoming little OCA mission about five minutes from Joe and Donna’s house, St. Elizabeth’s Orthodox Mission. It’s a storefront right in a well-traveled area in the middle of town, right next door to something called The Storehouse Church; I wonder if their neighbors have any idea what to do with them. Anyway, besides wanting to attend services, Megan was going to make kollyva for the family Easter dinner the next day, and wanted to know if the priest would be willing to bless it.

Of course, the priest, Fr. Christopher Swanson, said, without so much as raising an eyebrow. Bring it tomorrow morning after Liturgy and we’ll do a memorial for him.

Sunday morning we went with Donna to 8am Easter Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Bremerton. The homily was precisely what was needed, with the priest starting off with the question, “Why do we visit the graves of those we love?” One thing that was a little puzzling, however — I was under the impression that Catholics said “Christ is risen!” “The Lord is risen indeed!” on Easter, and when I greeted a couple of people with “Christ is risen!” I got blank stares. Oh well. We were there for Donna, and she found in the Body and Blood the comfort she was seeking that morning.

After Mass, Megan put the finishing touches on the kollyva and we headed to St. Elizabeth’s for what at that point was the last third or so of the Palm Sunday Divine Liturgy. It was absolutely pouring outside, so there was no procession with the palms, but the people were nothing short of amazingly gracious when it was time to do the panakhida for Joe — the full choir sang, they wept with us, they embraced us as their own. Fr. Christopher was also kind enough to bless a prosphora loaf at the altar for Joe. Thank you, St. Elizabeth’s, for showing us what Christian community and family actually is.

Back at Donna’s, Easter dinner was served. A place for Joe was set at the table, with a photo of him on his plate. For our part, we served the kollyva, the little prosphora loaf, as well as a half-dozen Easter eggs which I had dyed with onion skins.

The rest of the evening consisted of me packing. Joe was being buried Monday, the next morning, but the actual funeral Mass would not be until the following Saturday. Our tickets had been booked to come back Monday evening; we decided that Megan would stay through the following Sunday and I would go home as planned after the burial. For several reasons, it wasn’t what we wanted to do, but for several additional reasons, it was really the only way we could split the baby — no matter what we did there was going to be heartbreaking sacrifice involved. That things had been scheduled the way they had was more than a little perplexing, but one thing which is crystal clear to me after witnessing this is that there is absolutely no way that the person making the decisions will be able to please or accommodate everybody. Donna and Megan assured me that being there for everything up to that point, as well as for the burial, was everything that truly mattered, and with St. Elizabeth’s just right around the corner, Megan wasn’t going to have to miss out on all of Holy Week. Donna’s aim, ultimately, was to have the burial be the “real funeral” for the family, and the funeral Mass be the public memorial, and I think that’s probably about as fair as it can get.

Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός.

Sanctus Deus.

Ἅγιος Ἰσχυρός.

Sanctus Fortis.

Ἅγιος Ἀθάνατος, ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς.

Sanctus Immortalis, miserere nobis. Good Friday, Mass of the Presanctified (Roman Rite, Extraordinary Form).

Monday morning, Donna was bustling around, saying, “You know the moment in The Lion in Winter where Peter O’Toole breaks through the ice in the wash basin, splashes the freezing water over his face, and says, ‘It’s going to be a jungle of a day’? Well, that’s today.”

Present at the burial were all of Joe’s kids, grandkids, brothers and sisters (even those from out of town), his mother, his wife, several nieces and nephews, and spouses of the same. Fr. Seamus Laverty of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Tacoma, who had baptized Donna and reconciled Joe to the Catholic Church back in 2002, and who had served Joe Last Rites and his final Holy Communion a couple of weeks earlier, presided over the burial. Megan, as Joe had asked, read 1 Thess 4:13-18:

But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.

Fr. Seamus, both per the custom at St. Patrick’s and at Donna’s request, sang “An Irish Blessing” in a simple, clear voice, and it was as fitting and moving a goodbye as we could have wanted.

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

Through tears, we all paid our last respects. Donna put shells and dirt from their property on the casket. Megan put flowers. Ian placed one of his CDs on the casket saying, “I know the music’s better where you are now, Dad, but this is for you.” Others just touched the casket, silently wishing him farewell.

And then he was lowered into the earth.

We adore Thy Cross, O Lord: and we praise and glorify Thy holy Resurrection: for behold by the wood of the Cross joy has come into the whole world.

May God have mercy on us, and bless us: may He cause the light of His countenance to shine upon us, and have mercy on us. Good Friday, Mass of the Presanctified (Roman Rite, Extraordinary Form).

“It’s so hard to imagine him fitting into so small a box,” Megan said. “It doesn’t seem big enough, even for how he ended, let alone what he was like before he was sick.”

“No,” I said, knowing exactly what she meant. “I think Joe was larger than death.”

We were able to spend an hour or so at a family gathering afterwards, and it was good to catch up with some members of Megan’s extended family whom we don’t get to see very often. All too soon, however, it was time to get me to the airport. (I do apologize for not getting any further north on the east side of the water than the airport — circumstances just did not allow. I hope to get out there again late summer or thereabouts with Greece pictures.)

Joe McKamey passed away at 1:45am on Good Friday 2009. He reposed peacefully, painlessly and unmedicated, naturally, at home and in his own bedroom, in the presence of his wife. He was at peace with his God and those whom he loved. His children were all able to mourn with his body, and to see him to his rest.

We should all be so fortunate.

Let us pray:
Upon Thy people who with devout hearts have recalled the Passion and Death of Thy Son, we beseech Thee, O Lord, may plentiful blessing descend: may gentleness be used with us, and consolation given us, may our faith increase in holiness, our redemption for ever made firm. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

Let us pray:
Almighty and merciful God, who hast restored us by the Passion and Death of Thy Christ: preserve within us the work of Thy mercy; that by our entering into this mystery we may ever live devoutly. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

Let us pray:
Be mindful of Thy mercies, O Lord, and hallow with eternal protection us Thy servants, for whom Christ Thy Son established through His Blood this mystery of the Pasch. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
Good Friday, Mass of the Presanctified (Roman Rite, Extraordinary Form).

A postscript: This morning, in my prayers, for the first time I prayed for Joe among the departed instead of among the living as I have done for years, particularly in the last several months. For the very first time, I understood with my soul as well as my head the argument from Tradition about why we pray for the dead — it is because it is our fervent hope, and our strong belief, that they are not dead but alive in, and with, Christ. I have understood the hope before now — but it is only thanks to Joe that I understand the belief.

With the spirits of the righteous made perfect give rest to the soul of Thy servant, O Saviour; and preserve it in that life of blessedness which is with Thee, O Thou who lovest mankind.

In the place of Thy rest, O Lord, where all Thy Saints repose, give rest also to the soul of Thy servant; for Thou only lovest mankind.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.

Thou art our God who descended into Hell, and loosed the bonds of those who were there; Thyself give rest also to the soul of Thy servant.

Both now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

O Virgin, alone pure and immaculate, who without corruption didst bring forth God, intercede for the salvation of his soul. — from the Trisagion Prayers for the Departed, Byzantine Rite

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