Tuesday, December 23, 2008


His wife told me not to call their pastor because he knew where they lived.

The church coming into the home was not the situation for Hal and Helen. Hal was a very active Deacon in a small country Baptist Church. He taught Sunday school. He was a trustee and a leader in the true sense of the word. He and his wife Helen were two of the charter members who helped found the church.

Helen called hospice requesting help. Hal was two years into the last stages of his
Alzheimer's disease. He also had prostate cancer and had been confined to his bed for over the past five years. Now he seemed to be consistently crying in pain. Helen could do nothing to bring her husband relief.

On my first visit to their home I drove up in the yard and parked next to their trailer. I knocked on the door, but no one responded. Then I heard someone shouting from the back of the trailer, "Come on in." I entered into a very clean and fresh living room. Helen was in the back bedroom with Hal. "I'll be with you shortly," She said. As she came into the living room taking off her rubber gloves, I noticed her hair was all frazzled. I could hear Hal in the back room moaning and yelling incoherently. "Please excuse the way I look." She paused for a moment, looked back toward the bedroom. And said, "Don't pay any attention to him. He can't help himself any more."

I introduced myself and handed her one of my hospice cards. I told her that I was there as part of the hospice team to do a spiritual assessment and to offer any spiritual assistance she and Hal might need. She asked, "What denomination are you?" Then, before I could respond, she quickly added, "It doesn't matter."

I asked her to tell me about her husband and when he got sick. She shared her long and agonizing journey through the valley of shadows of Alzheimer's, walking with her husband Hal all the way. She went on to tell me about their religious experience since they were married. They had been charter members of a small country Baptist Church, meaning they had been in on the starting of the church.

She had a certain excitement in her voice as she told me how active they had been in the church. Hal, a deacon and trustee, had taught Sunday school and served as the Sunday School Superintendent.

She added, "I was president of the Women's Missionary Society."

She was also president of the Church Social committee that was responsible for helping families who needed assistance during funerals and crises. (That is a country culture activity practiced by most of the country churches, which provided a meal in the church activity room for the family and guests after the funeral service). She told how her church grew and how proud she and Hal were, to have been a part of that growth.  Our conversation went well beyond the normal assessment of gathering information.

As I was finishing my visit, I asked her about her pastor. "How often does your pastor come by to see you and Hal?"

She gave me a sad smile. "Never," she told me, then caught herself and explained. "Well, when Hal first got sick, when we couldn't get to church too often, our pastor would come by from time to time. But," she paused thoughtfully, "I guess it has been over five years since he has visited with us since we stopped going to church."

"Does anyone from the church come by?" I asked.

"Not lately." She admitted.

I must confess I was somewhat in shock. "Do you mean no one from your church visits you or has prayer with you?"

“Oh, I guess they used to have prayer for Hal at prayer meetings, but I don't know what they are doing now."

"Do you want me to call your pastor?" I asked. It is a question that I ask all my patients when I'm doing their spiritual assessment.

By now tears were running down her cheeks. Her eyes opened wide in a flash of anger. "No, not now. He knows where we live!"

Their pastor never came to visit them while they were in the hospice program. Hal and Helen struggled with Hal's illness for three years before he finally died; he was on the brink of dying during the whole time. Helen continued her refusal to allow me to call their pastor. She told me on a number of my visits that she wanted me to do the funeral for Hal when he died. One time after a difficult weekend she added, "If he dies." Then she laughed.

Unfortunately I was away on vacation when Hal finally came out of the shadows into his new beginning, and I was not available to preach his funeral. Helen; in spite of her angry feelings, asked her pastor to do the funeral. On one of my bereavement visits after I returned, Helen said to me, "I asked the pastor to do Hal's funeral because other church members expected me to." I learned that customs have a value in the life of country families. The pastor was proud to do Hal's service because, he said, "He was Hal's pastor."

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