Story and photography by Karen O. Bray of the Catholic Transcript Magazine
Anna Dube, 95, was dying. It was the morning of Sunday, Oct. 9 at St. Joseph’s Residence of the Little Sisters of the Poor in Enfield, where she had lived for 20 years.
Mrs. Dube, a devout Catholic and member of the Legion of Mary, was surrounded by 10 of her 11 children and visited by many of her 26 grandchildren and 34 great-grandchildren over her final days. Members of the Little Sisters, a congregation that serves the elderly, never left Mrs. Dube’s side, praying and singing quietly in small groups or individually.
End-of-life accompaniment is the mission of the Little Sisters. Every dying resident in their care is attended around-the-clock by the sisters, who offer unceasing prayer with and for the dying resident while the nursing staff administers palliative and personal care.
“St. Joseph’s was her choice of a place to come; she made the choice herself when my father passed away,” said Lise Houle, her eldest daughter. “There is no place else like it, anywhere, for the care not only of the patient, but of the soul.”
Mrs. Houle recalled a conversation with her mother on the morning before her death.
“When you see the Blessed Mother and the bright light, go with her,” she had said. By about midday that Saturday, Mrs. Houle, said, she saw her mother fading away more.
Mrs. Houle and her siblings allowed a Catholic Transcript correspondent to join the family as they shared their mothers last 16 hours on earth, knowing that she planned to write about natural death and physician-assisted suicide.
Over the hours, emotions ran deep. At times, the room was almost completely quiet. At times, tears fell silently, and there were occasional muffled sobs. Greetings were exchanged quietly as small groups spilled into the hall to make room for others of several generations as the hours went on.
Talking and sometimes laughing softly at her bedside and watching to see if she was hearing them, family members eventually shared many happy recollections, such as of the annual family pig roast.
This tradition was started by their father. Mrs. Dube held court every year on that day in the midst of about 80 or 90 family members of all ages, until this past year, as her health failed. The family remembered her accepting a ceremonial piece of the best part of the pig before the party started in earnest.
“She was in her glory when we were all together,” said Mrs. Houle.
The family members were mostly, but not all, Catholic.
Many had little or no experience witnessing a natural death in such an intimate setting as an end-of-life vigil, and many were unfamiliar with palliative care.
In a loving gesture reflective of the devotional things her mother had done for them as children, Mrs. Houle fashioned a small cloth bag to hold the medals and crucifixes her mother had collected and worn for years. She had tucked it inside her gown, close to her failing heart, as she lay peacefully during her final hours. The beribboned bag and all it contained were buried with her.
“She’d made them for us when we were small,” said Mrs. Houle. “Now it was my turn to make one for her.”
The siblings were concerned on Oct. 8 that eldest son Edouard, driving from Maine with his wife, might not arrive in time to say goodbye to his mother. The family kept in cell phone contact to track how many more miles and how much longer it would take the couple to reach St. Joseph’s.
When Edouard arrived, he hastened to his mother’s pillow, ball cap still on. Several deep breaths broke the silence, and someone whispered, “Does she know hes here?” No one knew for sure, but Sister Regina Tomayo, who had been praying the rosary with the family, said, “She’s enjoying all of you being here.”
Mrs. Houle said that on the day before her mother died, Mrs. Dube told her daughter that she “was ready.”
As death neared, Mother Genevieve Regina Nugent spoke softly and very close to Mrs. Dubes ear. “Anna,” she said, “its all right. You can go. You can go to the Blessed Mother. It’s OK. You can go. Go to the Lord.”
Mrs. Dube passed away at about 4:45 on the morning of Sunday, Oct. 9.
Her eldest daughter described it as “a holy death.”
“When she came here, that’s what my mother wanted and that’s what she got.”
The wake and funeral Mass were held right there in the St. Joseph’s chapel, in which Mrs. Dube had worshiped and in which she had long served as sacristan. The chapel was full, and her favorite song, “J’irai la voir un jour,” (“I Will See Her One Day”) was sung. The 11th sibling, delayed in Florida by a hurricane and unable to reach St. Joseph’s before his mother passed away, arrived in time to attend the wake and funeral.
Mrs. Houle, a retired certified nursing assistant who worked at St. Joseph’s for 12 years, is a member of the Association Jeanne Jugan, a lay apostolate whose members serve the Little Sisters in a volunteer and benevolent capacity. She still provides seamstress services to the community of sisters.
She had visited her mother frequently, often daily, in the privacy of the apartment where Mrs. Dube had lived independently for nearly a dozen years. When her health made living alone impossible six or seven years ago, her mother reluctantly conceded that she needed to move into an area of the facility where nursing and other assistance is available.
After that move, Mrs. Houle said, her mother continued to enjoy her circle of friends, participate in numerous social activities, devote herself to the dunes of sacristan and attend daily Mass and prayers with the sisters.
Although her health had declined, finally confining her to a wheelchair, Mrs. Dube spent only the last two weeks with 24-hour skilled nursing and end-of-life care.
Mrs. Houle said the siblings are grateful for the care their mother received throughout her years at St. Josephs, and especially at her death.
“We knew,” Mrs. Houle said, “that at the end the sisters were going to start sitting with her, which happened about three days before she passed away.”
Mother Genevieve said that, in general, being with a dying Resident is “a very precious time.” Often, she said, “families share memories and they realize what a family they’ve had. A lot of times there are graces that families receive at that time.”