First Words Near Last Days
A classmate phoned me on behalf of the annual alumni fund drive. It was a moment of divine inspiration.
The likelihood that eternal truth and wisdom might arise in such an exchange is like expecting an epiphany during a beer commercial. But one thing led to another and my soliciting friend told me of a personal experience during his last stay in the hospital.
He had suffered heart failure and lapsed into a coma of eleven days duration. He worried about that long journey into unconsciousness, that while there he saw no bright light, had no angelic visions. And why had he been deprived when books and film abound reporting out-of-body exhilarations of those who have a near-death experience? He had come late to the Episcopal church priesthood, after a career in business, but he had been a faithful worshiper long before ordination. I assured him from my experience as a pastor of souls that the bright light and angel chorus were as likely for most of us as the ability to walk on water. Besides, as every film buff knows from "All That Jazz," about the creative but profligate Bob Fosse, the beckoning lady in white doesn't seem to require virtue for her appearance at the end of the tunnel to eternity.
When at last my friend awoke from his numbed slumber, his son and family were on the left side of his bed, his daughter and family on the right, and his beloved helpmate of nearly fifty years at the foot of the bed. He blurted out his first words after eleven days of silence: "Love each other." The gathered family gushed forth a river of tears of joy and surprise at the poignancy of the sentiment.
The next thing he said was aimed at the grandchildren: "Don't smoke." In the hurly-burly of commercial life, with all of the attendant stress, he had been a three pack a day chimney. That habit had taken a steep toll on his heart. He wanted the next generation to avoid his mistake.
He observed how his vacancy for eleven days led him to a reassessment of what really matters. The philosophy professor he and I studied with at college insisted that we do not live until we have faced our dying. Bill (that's his name) faced death big time. Life, thereafter, he told me in that phone call, was sweeter, more precious than ever. Family and friends too. I've preached that message. I believe it. But for Bill it is a lived reality.
Would that I could report from my fifty years of pastoral care that Bill's lesson from his moment of extremity is shared by everyone who has been there and suffered that. I distinctly remember the fellow who was revived by the extraordinary efforts of the medical profession at the behest of his family: he woke up angrier than a bear in mid-hibernation. He wanted to be done with it (life, that is); and why couldn't they just leave him alone?
Then there was the church leader who almost died from kidney failure. While recuperating from a complicated and exhausting operation he apparently decided to change his priorities, but they didn't match Bill's reaffirmation of kindness and gentleness to those around him. This fellow left his wife, married his secretary, quit his job, and moved a thousand miles away.
Years and years ago in the Staten Island Marine Hospital, while visiting a church member, I offered to pray with the fellow in the next bed. He smiled me away, saying that as he had lived (without prayer and God), so he would go through whatever number of days he had left. His honesty was endearing, and I should have repeated that line from The Razor's Edge on the lips of a priest to an atheist, to the effect that even if he didn't believe in God, God believed in him. Still his insistence on doing it the way he had always done it is a sober reminder that, though other choices may always be there, we usually become what we were.
Bill's exhortation upon emerging from a deep, deep slumber, "Love each other," was consistent with the days before the eleven leading up to it.
Divine inspiration in a dunning phone call! (Although he didn't dun, and I happily assured him I would do my best for our dear old alma mater.) Who'd a thought?! God might just as well pick a barn to be born in as to infiltrate a conversation about a donation to a secular institution.