Friday, August 8, 2008


An old Merchant Marine asked, "How do you know I'll die before

One of the first lessons I learned from those who are walking in the shadows of death came from my first hospice patient. He reminded me of a truth that I had forgotten in my zest for work, ministry and life. That truth was that we really do not control our own dying process; we do not really know when we will die.

A person desiring to be a hospice patient must be admitted by a doctor who will state to the patient and family members and be willing to note in the patient's medical record, "The patient has six months or less to live if the disease follows it normal progression."

I have not met a doctor who will give a definitive interpretation of what is a normal prognosis for his patients he believes are dying. Each person has within his cultural background various energies and life and death experiences that need to be taken into consideration when he is being diagnosed and facing their own death.

When a person undertakes the awesome task of assisting and comforting a dying patient, he must remember that he too is dying with each breath that he takes. Death is no respecters of persons. That old adage, "The only certain things we face in life are death and taxes'', may only be half true. Our taxes may disappear or we might choose jail rather than paying them, but death leaves us with no choice. Our own death will be a part of our life experience, whether we want it or not.

Bubba was a partially blind widower, an eighty-five-year old retired merchant marine chain smoker that had cancer devouring his lungs. His closest friend was Roger, his pet parrot, whose few choice words were off the deck of Bubba's old merchant vessel. He lived alone with his paid caregiver and was handling his cancer as best he could. He was my first hospice patient in a small hospice in Louisiana where I had become its first Staff Chaplain. Bubba was facing his death, his walk in the dark shadows, in the gruff "man of the sea" manner.

He became my first hospice patient teacher as he taught me my first lesson from the shadow of death. Bubba didn't like to talk, especially to ministers or chaplains. He attempted to set me straight on my first visit with him when he said, "I don't feel like talking." Then he wanted to know, "What in the hell are you doing here?" I told him, "I'm working for the hospice and you're my only patient at this time. I need to visit you at least once a week so I can get paid." He smiled with a twinkling gleam in his eyes said, "Ok, I guess but, I won't talk much."

For the most part he kept his promise. Our conversations would be short and one sided. I did all the talking. He sometimes shook his head while his parrot sat next to him and cussed at me from time to time, making Bubba laugh. One afternoon I learned from his caregiver that Bubba liked to sing conversations rather than just speaking. So, on my next visit I attempted to sing my greeting, "Bubba how are you doing today?" I sang. To my surprise Bubba responded in a weak singing voice, "Not so good. How are you?" This went on for a few brief minutes during our visit. Our singing seemed in some strange way to create a bond between us.

Neither ofus could sing very well and we were both a little tone deaf. One day we sang together, "Jambalaya eye crawfish pie." When I found out that his wife who died three years earlier was Baptist and her name was Grace I sang "Amazing Grace" to him. Whenever he heard that hymn, he would get tears in his eyes and make an attempt to join in the singing. As Bubba began to realize his death was getting closer he would sing, "I'm off to meet My Maker." Other times he would sing about the doubts he had as to what was ahead for him.

On one of my visits I was trying to get Bubba to open up and talk [sing] about the new beginning that was waiting for him when he died. I sang to him, "Bubba when you get to heaven and meet the saints will you send a message back to me and tell me what heaven is like?" He sang back his response with his weak and shaky singsong manner, "What makes you think I'll go before you?" That was my first and lasting hospice lesson from the Valley of the Shadow of Death, one of many that my patients have taught me over and over again. "I don't know for certain the time of my departure from this world by death, only that I should be packed and ready for my new beginning."
Ecclesiastes 7:1-2 (ESV)
1 A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of birth. 2 It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.
When I left Bubba's home I drove out onto Interstate Highway 10. As I pulled into the traffic, a large sixteen wheeler almost ran me off the road. After the shock of his air horn, I thought about Bubba's last song to me, "What makes you think I'll be there before you?"

I have learned a lesson that goes with me in working with hospice patients like Bubba. If I want to walk with patients through their shadows in their dark valley of their death and assure them of a new beginning, I must be aware that I'm facing my own death and anticipating my own new beginning.

When you're walking through the valley of the shadow of someone else's death, you learn how to live your life in the light while you have it. Their dark valley can be a classroom for living. Their dark shadows can be lessons in how to live.

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