|Note the difference in the final photo.|
“A watched pot never boils,” but sometimes they do. “And patients never die while someone sits vigil.” Well, that’s most often the case. But sometimes they do.
This morning, I found myself watching a pot come to a boil, then reflected on a patient who died during a very brief time alone (that’s Part One, which you’ll find below). But that was only after finding myself again in the midst of mourning the loss of a friend who most certainly did not die alone.
It has now been twenty-eight years since I was called to serve The Fort Jones Community Church. There’s a lot to say about my tenure there, but on my mind this morning, watching the pot slowly build up steam, was the Elder who wasn’t an Elder, yet. He served as an Elder would in every way but one. He just wasn’t “official,” initially. He was not allowed to attend Elders’ meetings, nor was he allowed to be called an Elder through the official channels of recognition in that congregation of that denomination at that particular time.
He’d been a one-man woman for as long as anyone knew. But there had been an earlier marriage during the earliest part of his military service. The combined damage of that relationship, later experiences in Vietnam, and especially the inexorable deterioration and multiple diseases that accompany severe radiation exposure (he served on spotter planes above detonations on Enewetak Atoll), left him very mindful of his limitations, and the wisdom of simply serving wherever Christ called you, no matter what others may call you.
His advice, counsel, questions, and reproof of a then-twenty-four year old pastor in a redevelopment church was perhaps the single largest factor to my continuing in ministry there. His continued input and reminders over the subsequent years contributed significantly to my continuing in ministry…at all. For more than half my life, he called me his pastor, and he was my Elder and, I claim proudly, my friend.
The above barely does justice to him, but in this limited space, perhaps it offers some explanation for my reaction when I received a call from his wife some time ago.
After lengthy battles with the variety of damages his early experiences had imposed upon him, “He’s taken a turn for the worse,” she said. She wanted to know what my schedule looked like over the next week or so. She wanted to know where to find me when it was time for “his pastor” to help arrange the funeral for my Elder, my friend. That warning call came on a Saturday. Of course, I had duties the following morning. So, despite her concern that I might end up making two trips in the same week (and that in the time it took to drive there, he could be gone), I agreed that we would make the five-hour trip only after calling to confirm that he was still there to be visited.
We arrived that Sunday evening. He was still there. Using talents I’d developed in working with ALS, Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy, and brain injury patients, I was able to enjoy a lengthy conversation with my Elder, my friend. He was weak, bed-ridden, but still able to reprove his pastor with good humor, even when I had to ask him to repeat with greater enunciation a particular gibe in my direction.
The next morning, we stopped by their home to visit briefly before heading back for the week’s responsibilities, knowing that my agenda and schedule were likely to be interrupted by news of his death. As we stood around his bed, though, his hand in my left, his wife’s in my right, and my wife completing the chain between husband and wife by grasping his big toe through the bed sheet, I prayed for my Elder, my friend—and I felt the unmistakable slackening in his grip, followed by the sigh I had heard from others many times before.
It momentarily threw me. I had never had someone die in the midst of prayer before. But knowing that he desired no “heroic measures,” I simply concluded my prayer (though probably more abruptly than I would have otherwise). At that point, his wife, retired from her nursing career, and I, an experienced Hospice chaplain, went into technician mode: things to check, calls to make, a pathway to clear. And then the long wait for contact from law enforcement (in some counties even a death on Hospice care requires the same attention as any other “unattended” death), their arrival, the arrival of the mortuary service and their departure with the body of my Elder, my friend. And then, the long drive home, trying to regain my bearings.
|Not a watched pot. Just potted watches.|
Somewhere along the twisting roads of the Northern California mountains, heading inland from my friends’ seaside home, I came to a realization. Nobody ever really dies alone. Granted, not all die surrounded by friends and family in the midst of a time of prayer. I trust that it was a blessing to my Elder, my friend, as the last words he heard on this earth were the prayers of his pastor. But as much as Jesus was with us in that moment, Christ is here, today, with every one of us.
Why, then, does it seem like so many choose to let go of the last threads of this life when all their fellow-humans have left the room? Maybe a lot of us just wait…until there aren’t so many interruptions to our conversation with Him.