She Lived Till the End

by Susheila Horwitz

One day, a few months before she died, I was visiting Helen Hodson. A priest came by to make an appointment to see her. After he left, Helen turned to me and said, “I am sealing up the chinks. When I am close to death, weak and vulnerable, I don’t want any cracks left in my spirit where the Evil One can get in.”

I was struck by that. To seal up the cracks—by forgiving, by letting go of old hurts as death approaches—is very smart. The time just before death can be dark, difficult and frightening. Better to have one’s earthly vessel shipshape and water tight.

In this way and others, Helen showed me how to die a Christian death.

Helen had had cancer for over ten years, and when her chemotherapy options ran out, so did her earthly life. At the end, in less than six months, Helen went from being able to walk and take care of herself to death.

But during those last six months, though her body was failing, Helen seemed to live each day fully. She seemed to accept what each day brought, and she did her best to love and be attentive to each person who was in her presence. And there was an air of peace and love around her.

Helen also showed me how to live. Most of us are not born into perfect circumstances and a perfect family. I wasn’t and neither was Helen. Were you?

So how does one deal with the suffering in one’s life? Some of us turn to addictions: drinking, overeating, being workaholics. Pick your poison. They all do the job of numbing your emotions and soothing the pain—at least for a time. What did Helen pick? She picked Jesus Christ, and she followed him and clung to him.

Helen made first promises at Madonna House on December 8, 1978, and it was shortly after that, in the fall of 1979, that I first got to know her. Three of us women staff worked at our farm, and Helen worked in the main house kitchen. The four of us became friends.

Over the years, Helen and I stayed in contact. Though I did not think of us as close, there was always an easy friendship and compatibility. Helen was a friend, a source of wisdom for me, and a companion on the road of life.

She also directed me in an Ignatian retreat, and her discernment and insights during it have always stayed with me.

But it was during the last months of Helen’s life that I felt very close to her. The times I could spend with her then were precious to me, and I felt blessed. I don’t understand it. I just know that there was a closeness of spirit and a lot of love and peace. It was a joy to be with her. And as Helen grew closer to death, my sense of the Holy, in her presence grew.

A few weeks before she died, Helen became unable to walk. All the years I knew her, Helen had walked a lot. I believe it was her way of coping with the hard times in her life. Helen, who was not really a talker, would take off for long walks. So not being able to walk at all must have been devastating.

As the end of her life came close, Helen sometimes asked her visitor to hold her hand. I would sit by her bedside and do that. Neither of us talked, but I would silently begin to cry. And then she would start to cry. We would just sit together quietly, tears running down our faces.

Helen was a quiet and private person, so I don’t know what she was really feeling. But she had an air of peace, and she seemed to accept each physical loss as it came. And she expressed gratitude for every little service done for her. One of her care-givers called her “the little saint.”

And how did she teach me to live? She taught me to accept what life did or did not give me and to make the best of it. She taught me to be a loyal and caring friend. She taught me to turn to the Lord, or if I couldn’t or wouldn’t, to let him come to me. And through her gift of giving Ignatian retreats, she taught me how to follow Jesus more closely.