As we gather in our homes to reexperience the last supper, and to honor the mandate Jesus gave us to love one another as he has loved us, my mind returns to another last supper, and another friend on the edge of death.
When she learned she was dying, my friend Mary Kay rearranged her life dramatically. She was retired, and volunteered at our student parish, and so had often had me and other students from church over to her house for a weekly dinner. We would eat and drink, chat and sing and laugh, and when the doctors told her she would die within the year, she sat down with a few of us and said, “Things are going to have to change, now that I’m sick. We can no longer have dinner at my house once a week. We will have to have dinner at my house much more often than that.” Our weekly dinner became nightly dinners, and she baked bread and pies and grilled pork chops and made stews and taught us all her favorite recipes.
We all agreed that Mary Kay was a saintly woman, but she said her lack of tact (or “prudence” as she put it) would keep her from going straight to heaven. With every snarky comment she would catch herself and say, “I guess that puts me at the back of the line in Purgatory.” She said it so often that to this day, when my friends and I catch each other thinking aloud some unkind thought we shout with delight, “Back of the line!”
The guest list got smaller as her energy flagged. She stopped dressing and wore her pajamas and a house coat to the table, wheeling along her oxygen tank. We were bringing dinner to her, now; gone were the days she had the energy to cook.
It was during her last Holy Week that Mary Kay asked the whole crew over for one last hurrah. By that point she wasn’t leaving her bed, and so she threw a levée, as the French aristocracy had once done. We all sat there, crowded onto her death bed, drinking martinis and telling old stories and laughing with her, and listening to her laugh. She had a tiny glass of wine—against doctor’s orders—and told us it was an act that would send her to the “back of the line,” and she promised she would wait there for all of us, saving us a place.
Mary Kay acted out of the norm from the moment she realized she was dying. She didn’t shut everyone out so that she could die in peace. She acted not with worldly scarcity but with heavenly abundance, inviting everyone to her table so that she could die in peace. She was able to look past her fear so that she might embrace us all again and again and again. What might we have lost without her stubborn choice of life, despite the reality of death? Because of her, we all grew. We learned how much better we could live, and how much better we could die.
I don’t really believe that Mary Kay is saving a spot for me in the long line of Purgatory. I believe she is saving for me—for all of us—a seat at the heavenly banquet, of which the meals in her home—the meals in our own homes tonight—are but a taste.
— Kevin Newell, April 2020
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog