Keeping vigil

March 30, 2011 | Viewpoints | Number 7
Melissa Miller |

Our recent journey began in darkness, continued through a day and into more darkness—a winter drive of 28 hours on roads that were at first snowy, then drenched with rain. We had received the call the day before: “Fluid on her lungs . . . palliative care . . . keep her comfortable . . . morphine . . . just a few days left.” My husband’s mother was dying. We wanted to be with her and other family members as she made her final passage. And so we drove.

When we reached our destination—the nursing home where she lived—we found Mother to be still alive and conscious, waiting for us and able to greet us. All of her children were with her, holding her hands, and exchanging words of comfort and care. Throughout the next day and night we took turns keeping vigil until she drew her last, quiet breaths, a peaceful end to a long life.

I had some alone time with her at her bedside, some of it holding her hand or helping her sip water, some of it singing to her, some of it silently recalling our shared histories as mother- and daughter-in-law. Memories floated through my mind: yummy meals served at her generous table; trips we had taken together; the warm, brightly-coloured afghans crocheted for her grandchildren; her finely sewn quilts that adorn our beds. I pondered her 91 years of living, the struggles she had endured and the pleasures she had tasted.

Sharp-edged memories came as well. In-laws are later additions to a family, and they may never fully understand or completely feel a part of the group they have joined.  As an in-law, I sometimes felt puzzled or even wounded by mysterious communication patterns or by my inability to decode the subtexts. By her bedside, I was given another opportunity to release any lingering hurts.

Mostly during our vigil, I was grateful for the timeless space we entered. There was nothing else I needed to do, no list I needed to chip away at, no task I needed to complete other than to be with Mother and the other family members—to sit and to wait and to pray.

Such timeless space is called kairos time, a term which comes to us from the ancient Greeks, who designated another kind of time as chronological (from chronos). Kairos moments are described as occurring in between chronological moments, and they offer special or potent opportunities. In Christian thought, kairos time marks an appointed time in the purpose of God. Some churches understand kairos time to be in effect when the prayers and songs of human worship intersect with the eternal worship of heavenly angels. Kairos time is ripe and rich and fulfilling. In a kairos moment, time seems to stand still.

Of course, not all of life can be conducted in kairos time. There are lists to be tended, bills to be paid, responsibilities to be fulfilled, mundane and weighty matters to be addressed. In our society, most of our lives take place within the structure of chronological time. Even so, our kairos moments can be cultivated, welcomed and savoured. Keeping vigil at a deathbed, rocking an infant to sleep, stroking the hand of a loved one, lingering in God’s presence during private prayers or in congregational worship—all these offer timeless space where God’s grace can act in and through us.

Melissa Miller ( lives in Winnipeg, Man., where she ponders family relationships as a pastor, counsellor and author.

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