("At the Deathbed, Sámal Joensen Mikines, 1940, from the Pioneers of Art website)
I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.
For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord's possession.
--Opening anthem for Burial, Rite II, from the Book of Common Prayer, p. 491
I have known John since I was about 14 years old and he was 23. He substitute taught a little before taking on full time teaching jobs first in New Cambria, MO, and later, Macon, MO, where he taught for 21 years. I first met him as a substitute teacher and I think my earliest thought was, "I'm gonna run this guy ragged." He looked like a real pushover, as student teachers went.
But then I discovered that he was incredibly, incredibly smart, and decided to respect him instead.
Over the next roughly 35 years, I think our friendship spanned many roles and lives. The older I got, and once I left Macon, we spent less face to face time in our friendship--my lives as medical student, intern/resident, and physician put my time at a premium--but we retained close connections via phone and various modes of Internet communication, along with the occasional face-to-face. I respected his intelligence as an amateur ornithologist and self-taught meteorologist, and he respected mine in medicine. (He did, however, seem to delight in telling me all of his medical maladies regarding parts of his body I'd rather not discuss in casual conversation.)
We didn't always see eye to eye on any given day and occasionally exasperated each other--we had occasional go-rounds, as long time friends sometimes do--he couldn't handle my pig-headedness and stiff-necked behavior on some days, and I used to berate him for being a bad manager of his money and not taking good control of the diabetes he developed later in life--but we always managed to make up somehow, and there was just a point where both of us knew we were unconditionally friends simply because we'd been friends this long, and it was just silly to ever be THAT mad about anything. There's truly a precious gemstone-like quality to enduring friendships that turns some people from friends to "family."
He had long been orphaned in the world. His mother died when he was twelve years old. His father sort of disappeared for years from his life then mysteriously resurfaced when he became too old and ill to care for himself. His aunt and uncle--never married brother and sister who lived in the same house for decades--many people in town thought they were married, but they were brother and sister--who raised him and his brother in their teens were also long dead. His brother died in his young adulthood under troubling circumstances--he died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage, but was most likely not a suicide. His brother had merely come home late after a double shift at work and, as best as anyone could tell, had fallen asleep at the wheel in the garage with the garage door down and the motor running.
As a result of this, John began to collect a family--and what an amazing family it was. Teachers, former students, birders, ham radio operators, and civil defense personnel. Firefighters and rescue squad workers and storm chasers. He became a doting uncle to many of his friends' children. He retired early as his health began to decline and he started having to face a different kind of "disciplinary problem" in the classroom. In the early days of his retirement, he traveled extensively (as I fussed at him that he wasn't managing his money well) and took a couple of part-time positions. One of those travels took him to England, where he became enamored with many Anglican churches, but mostly, Anglican liturgy and theology.
...and that is where the next and probably best intersections of our long-time friendship began. It was a good thing he did not listen to me about how to spend his money. (I still remember telling him, "John, I HAVE an expendable income, and I can't even afford to go to England--are you nuts?" His reply was, "Yeah--but you're so cheap you squeak when you walk!")
John, on his own, had bought a Book of Common Prayer, and begin to study it and use it in his own personal spiritual life. He began to gain a new comfort in its words that was far different than the more fundamentalist forms of Christianity he practiced as a young adult. As his health continued to deteriorate, and he become more homebound and more frequently hospitalized, he began to develop a very regular and disciplined prayer practice around the Book of Common Prayer. I am sure he prayed regularly for all of us in his collected family. He prayed with a simple faith that I have never quite been able to emulate--I over-think my faith too much. I was always amazed at how he worried about all of us, when he was in pretty dire physical shape himself.
When I joined the Episcopal Church, he began to pepper me with all kinds of questions about worship and theology. I always answered them as best as I could, but finally, one day, I said, "John, I didn't go to seminary. I don't really know the "book" answers on this stuff. Would you like to visit sometime with a priest about that?" That led to his being connected to Trinity's Priest Associate. When her trips as a Hospice chaplain took her near or to Macon, she'd go "off the clock" to visit with him. Although John never was able to attend Trinity, we certainly brought the Episcopal church to him. I even did one of my required sermons for my lay preaching license for him on a home visit.
I always knew that some day, John's health was going to play out at a relatively premature age.
But I did not expect it to play out on Saturday, April 23--Holy Saturday.
I had gotten calls from two of his closest friends. I had been planning to visit him on the following Tuesday, my day off, but John's health had declined to the point that he wished no further therapeutic treatment and wanted comfort care only.
The die for how I'd spend this Saturday was cast.
I had planned on spending a nice, quiet, reflective Holy Saturday. Instead, I was sitting vigil at University Hospital in Columbia. When I got there, John was in pretty bad shape, but he was lucid enough to know I had arrived and recognized me. He could talk just a little. I could tell he was a little agitated because his room was hot and he did not like the mask on the bi-pap.
I asked him if he'd like me to read from him from the BCP a bit. He said yes.
I flipped over to Evening Prayer, and as I read through it, I saw a very amazing thing happen.
Even full of morphine, he was mouthing the words to the often-heard prayers and canticles. After each prayer, he would say, "Amen," repeatedly.
It reminded me that prayers reside in the deepest parts of our brains, and touch more than our frontal lobes. There was a comfort in that for me, as well as for him. I realized if it were me in that bed, something very holy and powerful is present, and I would not be "alone in my bed."
Over the course of the day, roughly 15 people made it to his room. We all took turns being in and out, being near his bed and sharing that spot with others, talking to him, holding his hand. As more and more morphine got on board, speaking became more difficult, but the look on his face was peaceful, although I could tell he seemed to still want to speak.
Our Priest Associate was going to be in town anyway to supply for one of the churches in town, so she came by, along with the deacon from that parish, to bring the Eucharist one last time to him and perform the Ministration at the Time of Death rite. I had to chuckle--John always avoided "real wine" because he was allergic to it because he feared its effects on one of his medications--when he asked me if it was okay for him to have some of the wine. "Sure it is, John--doctor's orders!"
It was an awesome sight to behold, all those people jammed in his room, reading not just from the three BCP's we had available, but also the iBCP applications on my iPad and my smart phone. John would have appreciated the mix of "real prayer books" and electronic ones in the room, I think!
After that, people spontaneously did an "offertory"--everyone in the room came up to him and told him goodbye. Many tears were shed. Some of them were mine, even though I'm not much of a crier in groups.
After the bulk of the crowd had left for either home or supper, I simply sat with him a while and held his hand, and our Priest Associate stayed a while with the both of us. I have sat beside a fair number of deathbeds in my life, and the comfort for me was that I could tell having the service was helping him let go. She and I talked a bit, and I thought about how I had helped bring the church to him, and how bringing the church to him had brought comfort to him in his life, and helped bring meaning and purpose to his dying. It felt very "full circle." As much as I hated to see him go, I also knew it was okay for him to go.
In those moments sitting with him, it felt like I was in a very holy spot--a window between heaven and earth--with the window partially cracked open, and the breeze of the Holy Spirit in the room. It was a place of anamnesis--where the memories of past, present, and future all collapsed in on each other.
I stayed till the end of visiting hours. Then, I kissed him on the forehead, squeezed his hand, and told him, "John, it's okay for you to go. We've been a long way together, buddy, but it's okay for you to take this fork in the road without me. Jesus is waiting for you on that other fork. It's okay for you to run to him now." As I walked out of his room, I was pretty sure it would be the last time I saw him alive.
As I drove home, I heard the opening anthem to the burial rite in my head, over and over.
After I got home, his two dearest friends called me and told me John had passed right around midnight--on Easter. I found myself crying, not in grief, but in his passing away on the same day we celebrate the Resurrection.
But this isn't the end of the story. We have Easter yet to talk about. I'll do that in a subsequent post.
("At the Deathbed, Sámal Joensen Mikines, 1940, from the Pioneers of Art website)