A Hospice Story
It was a place of pain. That fact was palpable; it knifed into me the moment I entered the house from the garage. My eyes watered a bit from the smoky haze hanging in the dimly lit kitchen. The smoke had an eerie effect; it cast a bluish tint that veiled the sad shadows on the faces of those gathered around the table, magnifying the sense of human suffering.
As always when I first make contact in a deathwatch situation there was a bit of apprehension swirling within me. Earlier in the day I had spoken to a family member and there seemed to be openness to spiritual concerns, but until I actually meet and interact with hospice clients I never know how I will be received.
Sorrow & Torment
I introduced myself as the Hospice Chaplain. There was a flurry of movement as cigarettes were snuffed out, beer cans were removed and chairs were scuffled away from the table. Hands were thrust forward. I shook each one, looking into eyes flooded by sorrow.
There were definitely a couple of bona fide tough-guys in the group. My instincts told me that these were hardcore unchurched individuals skeptical about church, and yet hungry for God. Everything I learned from them in our time together confirmed that impression.
A woman took hold of my arm. She whispered some words thanking me for coming, then half led me and half leaned on me as we went into the living room. I have seen death up close many times, but nothing in my experience had prepared me for the sight of the patient lying on the hospital bed; she was a physical wreck.
All my saliva dried up and a lump materialized in my throat, trapping my breath. The woman holding onto me clamped down harder and dug her fingernails into my upper arm, which was a good thing. It caused me to force a swallow, hitch in some air, and move to the bedside. She let go of my arm as she introduced me to Tom. I had talked to him that afternoon and now, as night was falling from the sky, he was sitting on a chair by the side of the bed holding the patient’s hand in his lap.
“Hi, Pastor Ken. This is Joni,” he said, face wrinkling in what passed for a smile. His voice was steady, and he projected a determined demeanor. He was in his mid-forties, wearing the black leather garb of a biker. His expression was tightly drawn and world weary, but there was a glimmer in his eyes that I came to understand was love for the lady on the hospital bed.
“Hey, babes. You’ve got company. Pastor Ken has come to visit with you.” Joni gave no response. Her eyelids didn’t even flicker. She was nearly comatose.
A voracious cancer and an equally aggressive radiation treatment had ravaged her body, but her fighting spirit remained intact. It was difficult to look at her because of her skeletal appearance, but somehow there was dignity in her unwillingness to surrender to the inevitable. She was Tom's age, though no one would ever guess that looking at her now. Her bones protruded grotesquely, her eyes were sunken and vacant, her skin pale and shriveled, her hair frazzled and stringy. She had the haunted look of a Nazi concentration camp survivor.
Compassion knotted in my stomach, and a part of my brain started to pray for Joni to be released from her physical, emotional and spiritual torment.
Photographs & Reality
The woman that had clung to my arm turned out to be Joni’s best friend. Her name was Donna. And now, while other family and friends stayed in the kitchen carrying on a hushed conversation, Tom and Donna told me Joni’s story. I listened carefully, asking a question here and there, but mostly I remained silent, attempting to nod or smile or express appropriate empathy.
While she spoke, Donna handed me a stack of pictures of Joni, some of which had been taken only a year earlier. I shuffled through them, looking at each one carefully.
The woman staring back at me from the pictures had a rough beauty that caught me by surprise. She was tall and blonde, with high cheekbones accenting bright blue eyes that sparkled with a carefree abandon and love of life. Her smile had a sharp edge to it, reflecting a positive hardness that hinted at stubbornness and strength of character. I could not reconcile the photographs with the cadaverous figure on the bed.
Confronted By Life & Death
After a half-hour or so, I asked for permission to pray with them. Tom and Donna nodded as relief washed over their faces. I stepped to the doorway leading to the kitchen and invited everyone to join us.
We crowded around the bed, pressing in close to each other. Tom was still holding one of Joni’s hands. I took hold of her other hand, brushed a few strands of hair off her forehead, then urged everyone to join hands. I wasn’t sure how they’d respond to my suggestion, but without hesitation hands were linked together or arms were draped over shoulders.
It was an embodiment of the universal need for human contact; it resulted because an awful realization of the fragility of life was being peeled away to reveal that death is the enemy stalking everyone. No one escapes this destiny; no matter how calloused our exterior or how hard we work at maintaining a cynical façade to insulate ourselves, we all arrive at the same end.
Not even bona fide tough-guys are immune or insensitive to that fact. When confronted by life and death truth, every soul screams for answers. I looked around the circle, and then bowed my head. A rustle of movement told me that everyone was following my lead.
A Holy Moment
As silence settled on us, I prayed. I thanked God for Joni, for her life, her love, her friendship. I thanked God for Tom and Joni’s life together, and all the good memories he’d allowed them to make. I thanked God for their love. I prayed for God’s mercy. I prayed for salvation. I thanked God for the promise of Christ. I prayed that Joni would receive all the grace available to her. I prayed that she would be welcomed into the presence of God. I prayed for those who loved Joni. I prayed that their hearts would be open to the Holy Spirit. I prayed that God would show himself strong in their lives.
It was a tender moment. No, it was so much more than tender; it was a holy moment. A rising timpani of sniffles and sobs swallowed the silence that had preceded prayer. My voice broke several times as I prayed, and by the time I said amen, tears were flowing freely down my cheeks. I palmed them away as the tight circle of people tensed even tighter in what can only be described as a communal hug that squeezed me in its embrace.
As it constricted around me, I was almost overwhelmed by a sense of our common humanity. Some words from Ecclesiastes raced through my head: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.”
When I left that evening, I didn’t think it would be possible for Joni to survive the night. But as we know, there is great mystery in life and death; there is great mystery in the whys and wherefores of God. Joni lingered for a week, even rallying a time or two. Over those days I had several opportunities to spend some meaningful moments with the family.
He's Trying To Teach Us Something
During one of those times, Joni was conscious and somewhat lucid. We were gathered around her, and someone expressed all the natural doubts and questions about God - as in why is God allowing this suffering to happen? Being the resident reverend, all eyes fixated on me with looks of expectation that made me squirm inside.
I racked my brain to provide a theologically profound and spiritually comforting answer, but before I could formulate one, a squeaky rasp spoke volumes, resolving the issue. Mustering every remaining fragment of strength, Joni said in a frail but clear voice: “He’s trying to teach us something.”
An audible sound escaped my lips as goosepimples shivered up my spine. What a testimony from a person at peace with her Maker. I wondered if I possessed that kind of faith; given an exchange of circumstances, if I was the one withering away in the clutches of an agonizing demise, did I possess that kind of faith? He’s trying to teach us something.
An Aspect Of Discipleship
A couple days later, Joni died. She battled right to the end, refusing to give up easily. She did not know the meaning of the word quit. As a hospice chaplain I have had many close encounters with the trauma of death, and as strange as this may sound, I am always enriched or changed in some way. For example, Joni’s pain-racked journey to death illuminated an aspect of discipleship for me.
Jesus said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” We equate denying oneself to dying to self. The image of carrying one’s cross to the point of execution is a powerful metaphor; Jesus understood exactly what he was saying. Those first disciples had in all likelihood eye-witnessed the barbarity of death by crucifixion; they may not have fully grasped what Jesus required of them, but they most certainly comprehended the basics of death.
Dying was not easy then and is not easy now because we humans cling to life. What is true in the physical world is true in the spiritual realm. We should never glibly refer to dying to self as though it can happen by waving a magic wand or drinking a secret elixir; neither can it be picked up at a drive-thru window.
There is no ease or comfort in dying to self because the price to be paid is surrender; it is a daily arduous process that has its share of pain and sacrifice.
Turn The Page
I arrived at the house shortly after Joni drew her last labored breath. The hospice nurse had just contacted the coroner, and was leaving. While I did my best to minister to friends and family members, Tom put Bob Seger’s Greatest Hits on the stereo system and cranked it up loud.
Seger was one of their favorite rockers. As the music filled all the empty places, Tom gently washed and dressed Joni for the last time. I actually wanted to leave; I felt like an intruder, but he asked me to stay.
I watched and prayed while he lovingly tended to her needs, all the while talking to her about their life together. He arranged her wedding ring on a necklace and picked out a flowery print shift that was bright and colorful. He cared for every detail with a tenderness that humbled me.
When the funeral director arrived, Tom poured out his last measure of devotion, saying a final good-bye as Joni was unceremoniously zipped into a body bag.
I went out into the cold February night, knowing that I had been truly blessed. The Seger song “Turn The Page” now has a whole new meaning for me. When it came time for Joni to turn the page from life to eternity, she did so with a reluctance that came from her tenacity and toughness.
In my very brief time and contact with her, she impacted my life and I will not soon forget her. Her simple attitude of childlike faith raises compelling questions that ought to motivate every one of us: As we reach out to a hurting world, what is God trying to teach us? And are we learning the lessons?
- Wanted Man
Wanted Man a.k.a. Ken R. Abell, seeks to be a blessing to others. He's a rake, a rambler, and a teller of tales who understands that there is strength in a story well told and well lived. To learn more, inquire or schedule him, visit this web site.
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