A good friend is dying.
She has been in the hospitals and rehabs for seven months.
I went to see her about a month into this journey. She was coming out of what I will call a coma but I have advanced degrees in things like history and a high school education in biology so what do I know. My brother took me to see her. She’s 7 hours from where I live and I knew I’d need some help getting to her. I prayed and asked God to provide a way for me. Quickly, a friend from our Wake Forest days contacted me and invited me to stay with her and her awesome husband and daughter in MD for the night. My brother equally quickly offered to help me get up there. He drove 2 hours from his home to pick me up then the rest of the way so I could see her. I’m so grateful for him and his fiancé and enjoyed our conversations on the way up and back home. My friend was not able to speak when I saw her in September but I could see that she was there. I could see it in her eyes. It was a relatively short visit. I think I went in two or three times over the course of an afternoon and got to visit with the family in the waiting room in the meantime.
Since that time, the family has given regular updates through CaringBridge.com which is a great service to those with ill loved ones. Updates are posted there and readers can respond with messages for all to see. It saves a family from having the same conversation 10 times and the message getting lost as it is translated from one person to the next. Of course, I read these as soon as I see that there’s an update (my phone tells me). Each one since September has been in the same, steady (though slow) direction of continuous improvement for her. There’s a photo of her outside amid the flowers in the hospital garden, there’s a tale of a birthday party in the room and a Christmas party in the room (with smuggled-in food) and photos of her with a walker, a breathing apparatus, scissors, and smiles. Her husband, son and daughter wrote the various updates. I tried to do my part by sending cards (once a week when I was on a roll). I wrote a five page letter at Christmas time explaining my disdain for two great blasphemers: Michelangelo and Norman Rockwell, both of whom have done a major disservice to humanity by trying to capture the uncapturable. I followed up with a report of our Christmas which was a wonderful event filled with good food and good friends around long tables outside in the backyard (the temperature was in the 80s), puzzles for the introverts and cute comments from our 4 year old little buddy.
I saw my friend again last week. I had to go to DC for a morning which involved a peacemaking and reconciliation experience with some people I’d gone through mediation with about 10 months ago. I left there relieved that our conflict could be put to rest and that there is a future for some of us to do good together in the future. The timing worked out and the location of this meeting worked out so that Fr. J, my colleague of 11 years at Wake Forest, picked me up on his way out to see our mutual friend in the hospital. I got to spend time in the waiting room with the family and got to know one particular person whom I hadn’t met yet. I enjoyed seeing photos of my friend’s grandson who, it turns out, is super cute. I was able to watch a few videos as well and see that he is a smiley, happy kid with great parents. That was lovely. When it was time to go in to see my friend, a family member told me that at the Christmas party, they skyped in another family member who was on the other side of the world. He surprised them all by donning the same blue smock and gloves required of ICU visitors. He was in a hotel room on the other side of the world wearing that outfit while skyping into the party in her room where everyone there was wearing the same outfit. Say what you will, I think the internet is a real force for good in this world.After some time in the waiting room, it was okay to go visit her. I was in the room with two family members and Fr. J. Nobody sat in the chair next to her bed so I sat there. I was able to place my hand atop hers with the sheet separating it. On the way up, I’d read a hospice website about visiting a dying loved one. Sure, as a campus minister, I’ve made plenty of hospital visits & coached plenty of students on decorum and customs in these settings but it was helpful to read stuff that assured me it was fine to touch her as I did. Also, my mom reminded me on the phone that the hearing is the last to go so I spent our time rehashing some funny stories and telling her about the peacemaking meeting I had just come from. My friend and I always parted with a promise of owing the other a red hot dog from a gas station (origin unknown) so I mentioned that to her and to the people in the room with me. She was unconscious and machines were doing the kind of work for her body that my own organs do in my own body. I teared up but did not get hysterical. I had a good cry a few days before when I learned she was actively dying. I know there are many more cries in the queue. I didn’t give some grandiose goodbye (the hospice website suggested not to do that) but I did promise her a red hot dog. We took off our blue smocks and gloves and said goodbye to her family members who stayed inside with her (and to her). I spent way too long at the ICU exit trying to figure out where the “red button” was that I was supposed to push to get the door to release. I asked them through the curtain and they told me where it was.
Now, I am back at home. Reading CaringBridge.com updates and well wishes from friends. I just wrote a 5 page letter to one of the family members and stuck in in my mailbox before coming to my office. I called a mutual friend yesterday and told her a little about my visit there. My friend who is dying is someone who has dedicated HER ENTIRE LIFE to serving the poor. In the town where she is from, there are 1000s of people with AIDS, poor people, immigrant people and others who have a better life b/c of what she has done to serve them and look out for them. She worked her tukus off finding donors and making sure money got to recipients. She led the way when it came to the church welcoming wave after wave of immigrants. She took great delight as an earlier wave of immigrants (Spanish speaking) came forward to reach out to the newest wave (Kareni-speaking). I can’t even list here all the things I KNOW she has done for other people. And I only met her in 1999. In fact, when I first moved to that town, Fr. J introduced me to her that very same day. She took me around to all the poor areas (housing projects, soup kitchens, etc.) as I had just come from working at a homeless shelter and was about to start as a campus minister at Wake Forest (a pretty well-off school) and she wanted me to feel “at home” there. It is immature but I look around and hear about people who are hateful and nasty and I wonder why we have to be stuck with those fools around while someone like this person has to go too soon. It is the timeless question of why bad things happen to good people. As Christians, we celebrate what death means to us and what comes next for us. I’ll be ready to revel in that soon enough but for now I’m thinking all of this just kind of stinks. As someone who is left here on this earth for another 1-60 years or so, I’m going to miss her a lot. I’m editing a documentary I’ve put together about women religious (nuns) who have served the poor and I’m planning to dedicate my work on this project to my dying friend
and her husband, lay people who have shown me and many others what it means to serve the poor. Please wait with me as my friend is dying. Pray for her and for her family and friends.