“I feel like I’m getting close to the gates,” he muttered.
He was 91. I knew he was referring to death, to the “Pearly Gates” where Gabriel the angel (or Saint Peter or St. Someone) famously waited with a list of names. And he knew I was there to discuss some of the last decisions he’d make as he faced his final days.
As I explained hospice’s benefits to him in a hospital room, I wouldn’t have guessed how close he was to those “gates.” In his nineties, he looked seventy and griped like a teen just told he couldn’t borrow the family car for a date. He wanted to escape the hospital and skedaddle home by . . . yesterday!
What a feisty guy.
My job back then may have been to share details about hospice, but being around people like this nonagenarian never felt like work.
He died in his own bed two days later.
According to the hospice nurse that officially pronounced him dead, his three adult children were grieving but grateful. After all, Dad had left the hospital, just like he wanted, and had died peacefully in his sleep. His kids, shedding tears and sharing laughter about family memories, knew their father had lived a long, good life.
End of story?
During the same moments the 90-something father was dying, another of our hospice patients died. She too was home, with family around her.
But she was 49, and had two teenaged children. To make matters worse, her husband—the teenagers’ father—had died of cancer eight years before. Which is to say, before the end of the second decade of their young lives, these children had experienced the loss of both parents.
So, on a terrible Saturday morning the hospice nurse needed to be in two different places to help with two different deaths. Since hospice doesn’t like to leave the families alone before the mortuary arrives for the body, I drove to the home of the 49-year old mother to allow the nurse a chance to leave.
I was not the family’s pastor or chaplain. I had never met them before. But I quickly learned things about this young woman. She loved gardening. She taught piano lessons, but didn’t hold recitals for her students because she preferred not to put pressure on them. Her significant other, who had known her for seven years, talked of how hard it was for her kids to accept him since he’d come into their lives after the death of their father.
But they had accepted him, and now loved him. Their acceptance was because of her, he said.
“How can I feel this way? How can I feel both gift and loss at the same time?” He shook his head while watching her children in the next room. “She was a gift I didn’t deserve. She made me . . . me.” He paused, swiped at his tears. “Together, we’ll figure this out.”
I had no words of guaranteed comfort for him. Why does a 91-year old man lead a lengthy life that concluded with his children thankful their father died peacefully in his sleep? While across town, literally in the same moments, a family was burdened with loss after loss after loss?
Across town or across history, the questions outnumber the answers. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated at 79 in the twilight of his life. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot at 39, with decades more still to be lived. Regardless of any conspiracy theories, how could Lee Harvey Oswald kill President Kennedy from the length of two basketball courts while John Hinckley Jr., a dozen steps from President Reagan, fired multiple pistol shots and only a bullet ricocheting off the presidential limousine struck the president?
Yes, yes, yes, I know (and have said it often) life is fleeting. Plan all you want for retirement, but the only reality is now. Death, like a drill sergeant barking the same orders to every new class of recruits, warns about life’s brevity, preciousness, and frailty. Hardly anyone pays attention.
What helps me survive the raw, painful, unanswered questions is a belief that God doesn’t place limits on love. Humans break promises, undermine vows, ignore laws, and add asterisks to the facts we selectively choose. And yet God, at the heart of every religion, is revealed as the One who simply loves . . . forever.
Does my belief in the Holy’s forever love drive my whys away? No. But it helps me believe the anguished whys are never the last questions, regardless of our proximity to those “Pearly Gates.”
A man gazed at kids that weren’t his. He didn’t complain, why me? Instead, his quiet statement about striving together with her—with their—children seemed a declaration for a future that would include doubts, but also hope . . . and grief, but also healing.