Public Process Note

I spend time with people who are dying, actively dying, and I spend time with the people who love them. It does and doesn’t get easier to listen to the rises of hope and the slips into sadness as some son imagines the soon-coming death of his mother or to the patient who looks ahead and thinks about not existing anymore.

I know how to stand and sit with a nurse whose patient just died or expired or passed away. I know how to acknowledge the connection between myself and a doctor I met only around the grim and delightful experience of a patient who died late that night a few months back, the recognition between us like a secret we keep to ourselves.

The medical intensive care unit, the on-call experience, the jacket that identifies me in the hospital all lend themselves to wearing the experience of somebody’s grief. Of course, I have my own because I learn something of these good people, I am known in little bits, and I know them in little bits. And then, I carry and hold the grief of others. And it does and doesn’t get easier.

This post isn’t about the skills necessary to carry the grief of others, and it’s not about the ways in which I support people up to the edge and just before the dark unknown that is death. Of course, for the Christian, the reality is that death is a step or slip or movement. Like the shift of one’s body in a gracious dance, death is supposed to be a movement into another life, another part of life. In the words of a young woman who said something I’ll never forget: Whether we live or die, we win. That is a Christian view of death.

The lived experience is murkier. Living with the stories and words and prayers of another as she approaches that existential doorstep into eternity is grounding.

When I woke up this morning, I heard myself say of one of my patients, “He’s not going to die over the weekend” and, shaking my head at the unbidden thought, “He’s not dying today”. Of course, when I arrived for our morning report where we discuss the issues of the previous day, where we talk about who needs to be followed or continually given care, that patient was on the lips of my colleague. She dropped her head and her tone and said she had sad news. It was brutal for that to be saved until the last relay.

I had been right up until that moment. He had not died. In my mind, he was still with us. In truth, his spirit or his intention was waiting on the perimeter of my unconscious, even before I woke, telling me in his own way–or in God’s own way–that he was, in fact, gone.

I was glad, made glad really, that my chaplain colleague was with him when he died. Knowing of his faith and seeing the notes that had been charted, she sat with him and played gospel music for him. She sang to him, held his hand. She was there when he breathed his last breath.

This morning became for me another moment to grieve, another patient I had cared for, another person I had gotten to know. He was another person whose story, in such a compressed time, I learned to appreciate.

I spent the day doing the same things I always do in the hospital. And if you weren’t a colleague of mine or a nurse from my unit, you wouldn’t know that this gentleman was now added to my mental picture of deceased patients. I would remember that he had been in that room. I would associate the number with the first meeting and then the second until I captured what my last prayers for him had been. Had I prayed a prayer of benediction? I generally tried to.

He joined a different cloud of witnesses and not just the one the scriptures speak of. His face became associated with his room so that when I walked by, I said another goodbye, and it was like that on the unit. He was still a teacher to me, a teacher in how to acknowledge what was happening in me, a teacher of remarking on a man’s grace-filled transformation, and how to continually respect the boundary that we give all that we have when we’re there and that when we’re not there, somebody else is.

He became an occasion for me to remember the other patients who I thought of in similar ways, even if there was one or two profound ways that distinguished him forever in my memory. He will be one of the people I look for when I slip through the split in the veil myself one day. I will anticipate him as a host quite like he was when he welcomed me at the hospital, and I believe he’ll be smiling widely and probably calling me by a title and a last name.

Last Breaths

I came to the hospital with televised notions of death. I came thinking of scenes from crime shows and legal shows, where death had already happened or where death came swiftly. I’ve probably read of deaths in fiction where the event stretched a bit. Fanciful notions that never prepared me for being in the room, in the area where that angel hovers. There is nothing like seeing death enter a space, move from one corner to another, and linger.

It seems to me that most deaths come slowly. People die in all kinds of ways. Death is dramatic and traumatic in many cases. Murders and long-term illness. Crimes of passion and crimes of technology. Decisions made by people who care too much and people who don’t care enough. Each can be an agent of death.

I’m learning that life is precious, fragile. The air we have in our lungs is phenomenal in what it does. Lungs make things in our bodies. But that breath leaves. It’s departure sober and quiet. Sometimes it takes a long time for a person to take her last breath. Other times breathing vanished before we really knew it, before the help arrived, before saving interventions began. We had already died, already surrendered to something else, some place else.

Contemplating last breaths makes the next one different. Seeing last breaths daily or almost daily both unhinges me for the silly ways I hear myself wasting air and anchors me in the coming reality of whatever is next. It is certainly a part of my practice that we live toward something and someone and some place beyond these. It makes me italicize last in my mind. Hopefully it’s a spark that ignites better living.

 

The Race

Posted for all those relatives–past and present–who do everything to share those last moments with their lovely ones.

The Race by Sharon Olds

When I got to the airport I rushed up to the desk,

bought a ticket, ten minutes later

they told me the flight was cancelled, the doctors

had said my father would not live through the night

and the flight was cancelled. A young man

with a dark brown moustache told me

another airline had a nonstop

leaving in seven minutes. See that

elevator over there, well go

down to the first floor, make a right, you’ll

see a yellow bus, get off at the

second Pan Am terminal, I

ran, I who have no sense of direction

raced exactly where he’d told me, a fish

slipping upstream deftly against

the flow of the river. I jumped off that bus with those

bags I had thrown everything into

in five minutes, and ran, the bags

wagged me from side to side as if

to prove I was under the claims of the material,

I ran up to a man with a flower on his breast,

I who always go to the end of the line, I said

Help me. He looked at my ticket, he said

Make a left and then a right, go up the moving stairs and then

run. I lumbered up the moving stairs,

at the top I saw the corridor,

and then I took a deep breath, I said

Goodbye to my body, goodbye to comfort,

I used my legs and heart as if I would

gladly use them up for this,

to touch him again in this life. I ran, and the

bags banged against me, wheeled and coursed

in skewed orbits, I have seen pictures of

women running, their belongings tied

in scarves grasped in their fists, I blessed my

long legs he gave me, my strong

heart I abandoned to its own purpose,

I ran to Gate 17 and they were

just lifting the thick white

lozenge of the door to fit it into

the socket of the plane. Like the one who is not

too rich, I turned sideways and

slipped through the needle’s eye, and then

I walked down the aisle toward my father. The jet

was full, and people’s hair was shining, they were

smiling, the interior of the plane was filled with a

mist of gold endorphin light,

I wept as people weep when they enter heaven,

in massive relief. We lifted up

gently from one tip of the continent

and did not stop until we set down lightly on the

other edge, I walked into his room

and watched his chest rise slowly

and sink again, all night

I watched him breathe.

Singing with Brother Tom

When we first met, he seemed to be a stiff, jovial man.  The stiffness was only in his movements and not his heart.  He kept a full, broad smile on his face, wore glasses and a gray beard, and I could tell early on that he had jokes I wouldn’t understand.  Jokes, perhaps, I’d laugh at later.

I was told to call him Brother Tom because that was his preference.  We would get along because I could relate to his Christian faith, to the songs he sang, to the scriptures he went on and on about.  All those markers would be little pieces of Brother Tom’s deep faith.  He had an abiding song for his God.

On several occasions when I was with him, he had me pull his CD player to his side so he could play Gaither gospel, music I didn’t enjoy but lyrics I could follow.  The tunes’ texts were so familiar that I could follow them, even if I had to close my ears to their sounds.  Looking at Brother Tom’s face as he sang–closed eyes, his deep throat open–I’d think back to rehearsals with the Soul Children of Chicago when we would sing with all our selves.  I’d think about my days at church singing in the choir.  And I would join Brother Tom.  Sometimes.

We talked about the Bible.  We spoke of theology.  He always asked about my ministry and my leadership.  He wanted to talk about his writings, and I wanted to hear about his life.  Sometimes it felt like our conversations were dull in the sense that they were aimless, almost lazy.  But there was something building, an intimacy I wouldn’t know until my internship and time with him was ending.  Still, with all those important words shared between us, it was his music that marked our time.

He would sing in the middle of a conversation, offering a public display of affection, even next to sleepy residents in St. Paul’s house.  I didn’t want to wake up his fellow residents.  But he didn’t mind it.  He would simply sing.  Loud and never quietly, he’d open his throat as if God was before him, waiting and encouraging him to sing louder.

Donny Hathaway, a singer I’m sure Brother Tom was unfamiliar with, sang that “for all we know tomorrow may never come.”  But the faith residing in the deep bottoms of my old friend, old because he’d seen so many days with God and with people, old because he’d experienced plain loneliness and gripping isolation, old because he was aged by grace and suffering and illness, that faith had a different lyric.  In some ways, Tom Lopresti sang because he believed he would see a tomorrow.

On the first day of the week, when he died, Brother Tom’s voice joined another melodious chorale.  He wouldn’t sing along.  He would join the sounds of the stars and the unseen vocalists from all eternity.  In death, he would start a new chorus, hardly ending his lovely baritone rendition of thankfulness.  He would keep singing, even if I’d never hear him again.  Perhaps this time he’d open his eyes, but Brother Tom would sing.  For sure he would.

Neighbors in Another Place

I’ve learned, as a preacher, to let sermons go when they’re done.  I learned that from Dallas Willard in a book, and I’ve been practicing it for years.  But a message I preached is still, in a way, with me.  I was thinking a lot about a Colossians text (3:1-17) that says that Christians live in both heaven and earth at the same time.  “In glory” is the language in most translations.  That passage, among other things, evokes the truth that we have neighbors in both places, people we see and know in both places, expectations and conversations in both places.

I have been thinking about my father who died more than a year ago.  His birthday last week was the same day Maya Angelou died.  It was the same week my city was visited again by the clutch of violence as a teacher and real estate agent was killed sitting in her office on 79th street.  My brother talked with me about that corner; he works that area as a security officer.  These good people, all of them dying sooner than anyone who loves them wanted, have joined the community in another place.

The Colossians passage comes up again as I read this quote from a Catholic thinker, Ronald Rolheiser.  His book, Forgotten Among the Lilies, is a full gift of reflections, meditations, and challenges for the soul.  In this reflection, he is discussing the Christian belief of the communion of saints.  While he’s from a decidedly Catholic practice, this teaching extends beyond those doctrinal borders to the older understanding of the word, catholic, i.e., universal.

To believe in the communion of saints is to believe that those who have died are still linked to us in such a way that we can continue to communicate, to talk, with them.  It is to believe that our relationship with them can continue to grow and that the reconciliation which, for many human reasons, was not possible in this life can now take place.

Why?  Because not only is there communication between us and those who have died before us (this is the stuff of Christian doctrine, not that of seance) but because this communication is now privileged.  Death washes clean.  Not only does the church teach us that, we simply experience it.

How often in a family, in a friendship, in a community, in any human network, is there tension, misunderstanding, anger, frustration, irreconcilable difference, selfishness that divides, hurt which can no longer be undone, and then–someone dies.  The death brings with it a peace, a clarity and a charity which, prior to it, were not possible.

Why is this so?  It is not because the death has changed the chemistry of the family or the office or the circle, nor because, as may sometimes seem the case, the source of the tension or headache or heartache or bitterness has died.  It happens because, as Luke teaches us, when, on the cross Christ forgives the good thief, death washes things clean.

I think of the unfinished business of these good people–my father, Maya Angelou, Betty Howard.  I think of the ways they are now in that cloud of witnesses, that communion of saints, and how they hope for us and pull for us and, as my Catholic friends would say, intercede for us.  I hope their deaths bring us clarity and love and motivation to live beyond ourselves, for others, and for world-making justice.