In my last post, I reflected on the paradoxical truth that wholeness and healing always come through experiencing, admitting and accepting our brokenness. This past week I was present at the death of a man named Mike, whose last several weeks of life embodied this paradoxical truth in all of its messy glory.
Up until two weeks ago, Mike was a man utterly alone in this world. Through years of active alcohol and drug addiction and his refusal to stay on medication to treat his bipolar disorder, Mike had driven away everyone who ever cared about him. His behavior towards his parents, wife, and children was abusive, bordering on the violent. In self-defense, years ago his loved ones decided that they could no longer have any contact with Mike. Most of them concluded that they would never see Mike again and did their best to cope with their unresolved grief about the complete breakdown of relationship.
As a direct result of his alcohol and drug abuse, Mike ended up penniless and alone, dying of advanced and painful liver disease in an inner-city nursing home. When we admitted him, Mike told the hospice staff a little about his family but said that he expected to have no contact with them before he died. Clearly, Mike was not at peace. As with many cases, we had to conclude that we would do as much as possible for Mike to make his final days comfortable; we were not, however, miracle workers. The old hospice adage, “people usually die as they have lived,” seemed particularly apt in this case.
Through what I can only conclude was an act of providential synchronicity, county social services placed Mike in a nursing facility room directly across the hall from the room of a relative of his by marriage – this, in a metro area with thousands of nursing home beds! A little over two weeks ago, Mike’s mother, Eileen, happened to come visit the relative across from Mike. During her visit, Eileen learned about Mike’s presence in the same facility and determined that she would try to avoid him if possible.
Just as Mike was wheeling himself out of his room, he spotted his mother making a hasty exit down the corridor. Mike called out to her, not really expecting a response. Eileen later told me that at that moment “something snapped” inside of her well-defended heart, and she turned to face her dying son. What she saw shocked and appalled her. After years of massive self-destruction, her once handsome and strapping son had turned into a jaundiced, emaciated, sagging sack of skin and bones. “I would not have recognized him had he not called my name,” Eileen said. Eileen could only bring herself to spend a few minutes with Mike before leaving the facility feeling overwhelmed and confused.
Just two nights later, it appeared that Mike was beginning actively to die. Word reached Eileen through the family member in the facility. Astonishingly, Mike’s long-alienated loved ones, including his four adult children, sister, and parents, began to arrive to keep vigil. As the on-call chaplain that evening, I was summoned by the hospice nurse who reported a scene of chaos, conflict, and angst unfolding at Mike’s bedside.
By the time I got there, things had calmed to a low simmer, but I could have cut the tension in the air with a knife. Standing beside Mike’s bed, I invited the family members to vent some of their emotions and thoughts. A bit to my surprise, they poured out stories of unimaginable abuse, addiction, meanness, and rejection. The feelings were so powerful and painful that no one could recall a single positive memory of Mike.
Any grandiose idea I had about bringing some kind of deathbed reconciliation to this family dissolved with great speed. Suddenly, I began to feel paralyzed in terms of my ability to provide spiritual care in this wretched situation. Facing people, who for decades had endured their hearts being broken by evil, I stood there empty-handed and speechless. The only image that entered my mind was that of Jesus turning to the thief on the cross, dying a bloody death next to him. “Today, you will be with me in paradise,” said Jesus in response to the thief’s desperate expression of trust in Jesus as the Anointed One of God.
I found myself blurting out the suggestion (which I must conclude came from a Power greater than myself) that each family member spend some time alone with Mike in order to say what they needed to say to him. This was well received, and for the next hour Mike’s loved ones took turns going into his room to speak whatever truth was on their hearts to this man.
Mike’s sister and mother then surprised me by asking me to collect everyone around Mike’s bed in order to conduct a blessing service. I actually expected that family members would have said their goodbyes and then left quickly. Instead, they wanted to circle around Mike’s heaving body to commend him to God’s everlasting mercy and care.
Eileen made it clear in a somewhat apologetic way that no one in the family was “really religious.” I assured her that I didn’t think that God was very “religious” either and that the courage they were demonstrating by their very presence revealed an openness to God that would put many self-professing church members to shame. To a symphony of muffled sobs, flowing tears, and stone-faced silence, I conducted the blessing service, more aware than ever that grace is neither cheap nor easy.
As it turned out, Mike survived another two weeks, during which time he was able to utter the words, “I am sorry” to a number of his loved ones. It’s not like all of the decades of unresolved pain and unspoken anguish just melted away; everyone involved had been trapped inside walls of hellish resentment and wounded memory for too many years for that to happen.
And yet when I arrived the other night to gather Mike’s family around his forever stilled body, the rage and fear of a few weeks ago were gone. This time, Mike’s family stepped close to his bed to touch his cooling skin as I prayed those haunting words of the traditional Christian deathbed liturgy: “Accept, we humbly beseech you, o God, our brother, Mike. A sheep of your own fold, a beloved one of your own flock, a lamb of your own redeeming. Receive Mike into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, into the glorious company of all the saints in light.”
Tears fell like gentle rain onto the stiff, institutional sheets covering Mike’s emaciated frame. No one spoke for a long time after the conclusion of the prayer, until Mike’s mother, Eileen, lifted her eyes from the floor and said, “Mike finally got his peace. Maybe it is our turn now too.”
Writes Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamozov,
“Never be frightened at your own faint-heartedness in attaining love…Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude… just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it- at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.”
I rest in gratitude this evening, knowing that Mike and Eileen and their sorrowful clan gave me another luminous encounter with the Jesus Way, complete with its harsh and dreadful Love and its path of healing through brokenness. I lay down my head this night with a new understanding that I am the offender Mike, as well as the well-defended Eileen. I am Mike’s wounded family, and I am the desperate, dying thief on the cross.
Yes, I am – we all are – these and many more. But more fundamentally we are these and always these: sheep of Jesus’ own fold, beloved ones of Christ’s own flock, lambs of God’s own redeeming.