What is a happy death? Exactly four years ago, on April 8, 2015, my father, Donald Leroy Evans, journeyed into eternity. I wrote elsewhere about my experiences with him, bridging chasms we once had, due in large part to my SSA (same-sex attraction) struggles and the closeness we later shared since my return to the Catholic Church in 2005.
This piece, however, is about another aspect of my dad and his last few months on this earth. We each pray for a “happy death,” not meaning pain-free or with no struggles, but with the Lord Jesus Christ as the absolute center of that holy time which we all will one day face. St Joseph had such a death with both Jesus and Mary at his side. That is what a happy death consists of—no more, no less. This is the story of another beautiful entrance into the next world, and one I was extremely privileged to see and be part of.
Life of Simple Strength
My dad had beaten the odds several times over the years, having had a quadruple bypass while in his mid-60s and not long after his retirement. He quit a heavy smoking habit 20 years earlier, and, had he not done so, the doctors were convinced he never would have lived long enough to otherwise have such a procedure.
Not long after, my mother developed lymphoma, leaving us due to that insidious cancer at age 69, just months short of their 50th wedding anniversary. My dad, while not the most domesticated of creatures, took care of her as best he could, and heroically keeping her at home as she had wished until the very end.
Two years later, he met a lovely woman by the name of Betty Yates. He took full advantage of this second chance for a joyous retirement, and they were married in 1997 when he was 75! He had converted to Catholicism at age 18 when he married my mother, however, Betty was a divorced Lutheran. It would have been quite easy to just marry into her faith community, but he chose to go through a proper and careful process of annulment so that they could marry in the Church. Godly happiness leads to a happy death.
They spent the remainder of his earthly life together, and during that time he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, had two mild heart attacks, and only through much argument with the heart specialists was he able to have three stents put into his already damaged arteries, again saving his life for several more years. He also developed pneumonia several times, and kidney disease began to take its toll on him.
Finally, on Thanksgiving night of 2014, the hospital told the family that his kidney disease was now end-stage. He was 92, and dialysis did not make sense for his already battered body. He entered hospice, moving into the care center of the assisted living/nursing home facility where he and Betty were living. She could still see him daily, and he could get the added care and help that only hospice can provide. But we all knew that the end was near. Or so we thought at least.
All Bets Are…On!
I should add that he had one other love—the casino—and spent at least 2 or 3 days a week honing his blackjack skills and making friends, something he did easily all his life. Hospice was not going to stop him from this either. He managed, oxygen tank and all, to get there 3 more times to see his card-playing comrades and to return each time with more money than he had come with. Those skills literally paid off until the very end for this amazing man.
In reading the above, one might not have guessed that Christ and the Faith were front and center for him. Not much could be further from the truth, though. When he and Betty married, they each began attending each other’s churches; each Saturday worshipping at Catholic Mass together, while visiting her Lutheran service every Sunday. To this moment I am sure there are many from both faith communities who thought that they were members of each other’s church, and their picture together graced both parish directories. While different on some key beliefs, they truly were one in spirit.
After I returned to the Church, my step-sister, a former co-worker of my dad’s, who had introduced them, decided to become Catholic. My dad, at age 85, became her RCIA sponsor as she was received into the Church two years after I had come back. He obviously took his faith seriously, and it showed.
It was in the last four months of his life, with his kidneys working at just five percent, that he blossomed most. He knew he was not long for this earth, and decided to have his memorial service (aka party!) while yet alive. We had food, festivity, laughter, and tears, and it was on that day just before Christmas of 2014 that I saw how ready he was. He loved this earth, and the people here. That was clear until the very day he died. But he had begun to detach as well, not from people but from other things that had once mattered so much to him. We took turns sharing meaningful moments together, and he cried freely and laughed just as much as we did. He was still Dad, always cheerful and a bit mischievous. Still, that day the angels surrounded him, and his trodden face looked like one as well. God was clearly in that place and in charge.
Moving Towards Eternity
He did better than expected for the next few months, scooting around and never missing a card game—or a Mass. Then, once again, pneumonia came, and he made the difficult choice for comfort care rather than antibiotics. It would now only be a matter of days (see Living With Thin Veil Between Life and Death). Once again the family gathered. Again, instead of gloom, it was a near-party atmosphere at moments, and tears during others. He would sleep and awaken, and when he was ready to drift off, he each time said he was glad to know we were all there enjoying one another’s company. At moments he could not breathe well, and would momentarily panic, but medication and prayer brought him back each time. One time he was having trouble resting, and finally said to his wife “Betty, get over here and talk to me so I can fall back to sleep.” We all roared including her, of course. She, like him, enjoyed life, laughter, and large doses of chatter.
The day before he died, he managed to phone every person who was not able to be there. He even made peace with one family member who had some serious issues with him in the past. He had been trying for months to have her visit so that they could talk, but due to time and distance, it was not to be. However, in a 3-minute conversation, they were in harmony with each other, once for all. That was the kind of man he was. Earlier, not long after his diagnosis, he told me that he could now for the first time truthfully say he loved absolutely everyone. He was never a grudge holder, but, like all of us, was not as close to some people as others. Now he simply loved them all and wanted them to know it.
Speaking again of detachment, he had always loved sports. A lot. When we were growing up, he would often pull the TV stand into the dining room during dinner, to my mother’s great consternation, and it was impossible to talk at the table as a result. A couple of months before he died, I recall phoning him, and Betty, who answered, told me that the game was on. I asked dad if he wanted me to call back later, and he said, “No, I can talk to you for a while.” A first for everything. The night before he passed away, a major local basketball tournament was on TV, and we offered to turn it on for him. He then said, “No, I don’t want to know if MN wins or not.” What he was really saying, I think, was that it no longer mattered to him. His family who was gathered to see him off was all that did. For him, that was a very real and final detach from this earthly life. Happy death.
Blessings from Two Popes
One other thing he asked from me during this time was an apostolic blessing from Pope Francis. I had obtained one from then-Pope Benedict XVI for his 90th birthday, and he very proudly displayed it in his room. However, these take months to obtain through the Diocese, and I had no idea how I could ever honor his request this time. But I prayed, and suddenly remembered that I had a seminarian friend on FaceBook who was studying in Rome. I sent him a quick message, and he was able to get not one but two of his fellow seminarians to attend a public audience with the Pope for me that same week. The Pope willingly extends this blessing to any loved ones not present, so they each prayed specifically for that blessing on his behalf and mine too. I then printed him an “unofficial” but frameable certificate, and he now had a blessing from Pope Francis as well. I have never met these men of God but they shared their love to him just the same. Amazing how God works in little ways and big.
On the last day before he died, the room was filled with family and friends, and health care staff were coming in and out as well, hugging him, crying, telling him how they loved him, and our family was amazed at such an outpouring. His priest also came, giving him the Anointing of the Sick as well as an Apostolic Pardon. By then he was drifting in and out some but still knew we were there, and shortly after that he fell asleep and, other than occasional moments did not fully wake up again.
The Final Journey Home
The next morning, the day of his home-going, it was just me, two of my siblings, his sister Ethel, and my stepmom who were present. We prayed for him together, and later both his priest and Betty’s Lutheran minister came one last time and prayed with him as well. We also, as lay persons, anointed him with blessed oil from the St Padre Pio Shrine. Please note this is not to be confused with the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick, done only by a priest. The care center had Rosary that day, so I attended and prayed for him there with his own rosary. One of the leaders then suggested that they come to his room and pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet over him, which they did. She began to cry when she saw Betty, my Lutheran stepmom, and told her that the rosary she was using that day was one Betty had given to her as a gift! Powerful indeed. True ecumenism.
An hour later he was gone. But as he was passing, I laid on his arm an antique 100-year-old rosary from Lourdes, France, holding it there until the nursing staff could no longer detect a heartbeat. Mary was there and readying him. And earlier, during the last few hours, he continued to talk, on and off, but not to us, saying such things as “I love you” and “I am doing pretty good.” Whatever was happening during those moments we may never know in this life. But when he took that last breath there was no clear pain or other discomforts. It was the quintessential happy death. As he kept telling people during those last few days, “what a way to go.” I would add that his Mass of Christian burial was on April 16th, the Feast of St Bernadette, visionary of our Blessed Mother from Lourdes back in 1858. None of us had checked the liturgical calendar except God. Mary used Lourdes to send him gracefully into the great beyond.
Why do I share all this today? I want you to know this great man, just a little. More so, because I want us all to be less afraid of what is coming. I know I am. Without canonizing him, I am yet fully convinced that he went directly into the arms of Jesus, Mary, and St Joseph. And my mom’s too. That to me is a comfort beyond words or tears. It is also a challenge to live better so that one day I too may have such a happy death and join a holy man, Don Evans, for eternal rest and reward.
A good and holy (happy) death does honor to a whole life. (14th Century Maxim)
And a good reminder of the gift of this Holy Season of Lent and Easter. Strange as it may seem, our Lord Jesus Christ Himself died a happy death. May we all.
O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:55-57)