Deacons are often called upon to be first responders for
spiritual reasons. Sometimes a failing marriage, trouble with a
teenager, or more serious things that involve addiction and
depression might result in a call to a deacon. Ultimately, ministry
to those who face death is part of our job description.
I can remember years ago visiting with my first person that I
journeyed with long before I was ever ordained. That woman taught
me many things as her life slowly ebbed away ... some I knew I was
learning at the time, and others, I figured out later. She teaches
me still when I think about it.
This morning was the second day in a row that I got a call from
a friend of ours and a fellow parishioner at St. Albert the Great
Parish. I call her "St. Elaine" all the time, because she lives
more naturally the ministry that I often sadly attempt. Elaine's
Dad, Fern, is dying in her home.
Every time I leave home to head out to hospice to visit someone,
my wife looks at me as if I was crazy. Not because I'm going, but
because I'm excited to go and look forward to those visits.
Being with the dying is to be with Jesus. Sometimes people are
lucid, sometimes not, but always I feel the Lord's presence in the
room. Call me crazy, but I like hanging out with Jesus and so I
want to be where He is. My head is clear, things always seem so
simple, I hear the birds outside, I see the sun shining through the
window, and I know everything is going to be all right ... even
when it's not.
Often, the most important person in the room is not the person
dying, but rather the living who are terrified, wracked with grief,
and just don't know what to do. As death approaches, there are
whispers, tears, quiet conversations outside the room, tempered
laughter, and a lot of adjusting of pillows, blankets, and the
nurse being called.
Day to day, the person looks less and less like themselves as
their birthing process is reversed. Today, I was holding Fern's
hand as I read Morning Prayer to him from the breviary, and he
changed his grip, grimaced a little, and then settled back down
again as the morphine won the fight for the next few minutes.
When he was breathing more regularly again, I felt him grab just
my index finger rather than my whole hand. His fingers tightened,
and then slowly relaxed over a few minutes' time - just like my
kids did with me when they were newborns. It made me smile. Fern is
becoming a child once again.
To be honest, you never know what to expect when you enter the
room in which a person lay dying. Sometimes they have already
passed away; sometimes they are breathing so shallowly that you
have to watch their chest for a few minutes to see evidence that
they are still alive.
The one thing I can always count on for sure is that Jesus will
be there waiting, helping, encouraging, comforting and perfectly
present. I get some measure of comfort and relief in that I have
nothing to say that will fix or heal the person, or the perfect
advice to offer the family. There is great freedom in knowing that
you don't know. For deacons, many of us will tell you that the
simple path to success is just showing up.