by Jennifer Svetlik
Catholic priest and writer Richard Rohr talks about the importance of “dwelling together in the liminal space between life and death.” This past Christmas my family and I lived in this liminal space.
In December, as I traveled to rural central Texas to be with my dad, brothers, and extended family, one of my youngest uncles, who had struggled with heart disease for 15 years, was in the hospital. After the first of two expected heart procedures, he initially improved. Until he didn’t.
Within days, he was no longer able to live without the medical interventions that were fully supporting his heart. He elected to have the supports removed and knowingly face death.
The grace with which he faced his fate was moving. As he visited with small groups of family members throughout the day, he regaled us with stories, gave us advice on how to enjoy life, and had his first root beer float in many years.
Amid the tears, I experienced several surprise glimpses of God’s presence. While filling my water bottle next to a woman cleaning the bathrooms, she encouraged me, in Spanish, to “drink the good water, with ice,” from the machine around the corner. As we started talking about my large extended family that was gathered to say goodbye to my uncle, she showed me where I could get free coffees and sodas, and offered me encouragement from Ephesians 2:6, “For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus” (NLT). Her care and hospitality were a balm.
Soon after his supports were removed, my uncle went on hospice care. However, he did not die in “minutes to hours” as predicted. So, family members began to keep vigil with him.
My family returned to my dad’s home in the country and awoke the next morning to another glimpse of God’s presence in the liminal space we found ourselves in. One of my uncle’s heifers – one of dozens of cattle that graze on the prairie land my dad lives on – was pregnant. We thought she had an infection that might take her life and her baby’s. Instead, she successfully gave birth to twins!
The twins were very weak and unable to nurse. They began to bottle feed. Their lives, and my uncle’s, were hanging in the balance. The line between life and death was noticeably thin.
Two days later, both calves died. Their mother kept watch over them, even after their bodies were moved to the back pasture, as vultures and coyotes moved in to feast.
As my relatives kept vigil with my uncle at the hospital, the whole herd of cattle moved to the back field and stayed close to the bodies of the calves, until there was nothing left but bones.
The day after the calves died, so did their would-be caretaker, my uncle.
Amid the liminal space between life and death, Father Rohr says, is where transformation takes place. “There alone is our old world left behind, though we’re not yet sure of the new existence,” he says.
“When we embrace liminality, we choose hope over sleepwalking, denial, or despair,” Rohr says. “The world around us becomes again an enchanted universe, something we intuitively understood when we were young and somehow lost touch with as we grew older.”
The night my uncle died, my family built a bonfire in the yard and allowed the kids to roast marshmallows as we wondered why some live and some die, and how life and death are all wrapped up in the same sacred space.
Jennifer is Communication Associate/Editor for Mosaic. She was born near Houston, TX and spent a decade living in an intentional community in Washington DC, before moving to Lansdale, PA with her spouse, Sheldon Good. She is a graduate of the University of Texas and Washington Theological Seminary. She serves as Children’s Faith Formation Director at Salford Mennonite (Harleysville, PA). Jenn has two elementary-school-aged children and loves biking, camping, gardening, and vermicomposting with her family.