Friday, September 19, 2008


He didn't fear death, he feared the process.

Charley was another smoking former country preacher who believed he had gotten sick because of his sin of tobacco use. He said that, he couldn't quit no matter how hard he tried. It became an excuse for him because after he said it, he would take off his oxygen tube and go to another room and light up his Lucky Strike. He believed he was a spiritually weak person who deserved his fate. His fate consisted of advanced emphysema and congestive heart problems. However, he continued praying for a miracle while enjoying his destructive habit of smoking cigarettes.

Charley had pastored several local country churches on weekends and worked in the small town as a shoe salesman in the local clothing store. He often expressed to me that he felt as if God was punishing him for his sin of smoking. He would not listen to me no matter how I tried to convince him that God did not operate in that manner. He continued to believe his illness was punishment for his sin. It was almost as if he wanted to have something to blame. He truly had a big smoking habit. I dreaded going to visit him because of the second hand smoke that fogged up the house. Charley, like Herb, was fearful of being in the dark valley of the shadow. He would do everything and anything to keep the death angel from knocking on his door. Anything, that is, except, stop smoking.

When he was first admitted into hospice, the admitting nurse made sure he understood that hospice tried to keep their patients from going to the emergency room whenever they felt scared about what was happening to them. "Call our office first," she told him. His fear of suffocating caused him to become anxious when he faced pain and he feared he might be dying. He would call his doctor, and to appease him, his doctor would tell him to call hospice and go to the emergency room. The emergency room doctor would give him some medicine, the same as he could have taken at home and then they would send him home.

I approached him one day about why he was so anxious. I came right out and asked, "Are you afraid of death?"

"No, I don't believe so," he said.

I went on, "I was wondering why you go to the emergency room so often. They give you the same medicine you have here in your home don't they?"

"I'm afraid I may not take my pills the right way," he answered.

"How's that?" I asked.

"You know, I get so scared and nervous when I start suffocating and I think maybe I'll take too many pills."

"Sounds to me like you're afraid of death." I said.

"No," he answered. "I'm not afraid of death, it's the process that scares me so much."

I couldn't argue with that. After working with hospice patients for over seven years, I too fear, the process more than the event of death. Charley re-taught me an old truth about myself. I had to learn it over again and again. That is, as a chaplain who once faced his own death on a firebase in Vietnam, it was the process, not the event that I feared when it came to dying. I know that I don't want go through the valley of death and all those dark shadows if I can avoid them, but that is not my choice. It wasn't Herb's choice nor was it Charlie's.