Death and I don’t get along well.

As I entered the ministry, I felt confident about most aspects of what it meant to “minister” to, with, for people, but encountering death, providing comfort, counsel, words…I was just plain fearful. Since I wasn’t called into pastoral ministry, I thought I’d be safe. I wouldn’t have to “be there” when death occurred, wouldn’t have to communicate the news, or encounter the mystery.

My first call was to a combination of media and youth ministry. And within months, a teenager died as the result of a fall. I won’t revisit that tragedy here, since I’ve already written about it. (https://jeffkellam.wordpress.com/2009/09/ ) It is enough to say that faith, family love, and close friendships conquer fear and comfort us in ways we never fully understand.

After many years in pastoral ministry, I had certainly dealt with death and loss within our church families. Shortly after I went to my Vermont church, a beloved church member succumbed to cancer after years of struggle. It was touching to see how the close and extended families in that small community embraced one another so lovingly. At Marian’s memorial service, the family filled a table at the back of the sanctuary with place settings, some kitchen items, a tablecloth…all to symbolize the extraordinary hospitality that was Marian’s gift. Her husband Albert, a dairy farmer, yes, but also a man who knew the beauty of wood and the art of carpentry, asked if he might build a new communion table for the church, in her memory. Of course, he could. (I know he had heard me exclaim how small the old table was, and since it seemed to be more utilitarian and not a historical artifact or personal gift, we both knew the old table had served us well and could be replaced.)

Albert’s workmanship crafted a warm tribute, a table of grace and hospitality, a fitting memorial for his wife and, more, for the Memorial Meal that is Holy Communion.

Many years later, and after my other encounters with the mystery of death in the light of Easter’s promise, another church member lay dying in a nursing home. Beverly had lived not too many miles from us in Virginia. She had been born and raised there, had performed as a child singer on one of the radio stations where, a generation later, I would fill a time slot for over twenty years. Beverly had eventually moved to Vermont many years before Joan and I arrived there, and when she later found me at the Presbyterian Church in East Craftsbury, she made the connection with my radio show, joined the church and its choir, not quite fitting hand-in-glove within the fellowship. She lived miles away, had what might be called a prickly personality, and was a bit contrary. Let’s leave it at that. Then began her slow decline health-wise.

She wasn’t too subtle when it came to requesting pastoral calls. One entered her home through a side door, into an unheated, dusty room, filled with memorabilia from her Virginia days…old photos, various knickknacks, and an old Steinway grand piano. A second door took one into her primary living area, and Beverly would be sprawled on her sofa, a cigarette in hand. The house reeked of stale tobacco.

Joan and I both drove her to medical appointments and therapy, refusing to let her smoke in our cars. Once she had entered the nursing home, I reiterated that she could count on neither Joan nor I to buy her cigarettes, but I did drive into town once to fetch her a lighter, a specific Bic, against my better judgment.

As her condition worsened, she confided in me that she wanted her Steinway to go to the church. She had a couple of sons in the area, but their visits were few, with one of them telling me in a phone call that he just couldn’t stand seeing his mother in that condition. So, in her final days, she was alone.

A nursing home staff person called me one morning and said Beverly’s life was ending, and if I wanted to see her one more time, now was the time. Ironically, I had a funeral to conduct that afternoon, but I went to Beverly’s bedside, and found her in a deep sleep. I spoke with her, prayed quietly with her, and watched over her. She would stir now and then, sigh deeply, and seem to slip away, only to sigh again, and sleep. I whispered to her that I had to leave for awhile to lead a memorial service (I didn’t know the family…this was at the request of a local funeral director). “I’ll be back, Bev.” I was hoping she would wait for me.

Within a couple of hours I had returned, and Beverly was still asleep. I sat with her until her breathing finally stopped. It was a profound experience to be there as her life ended. It was the first time I had witnessed the last breath. It wasn’t dramatic. It was just quiet. I knew her ordeal was over. I prayed. And then I walked to the nurses’ station. “I think Beverly is gone, ” I said.

I was quite touched by what happened next. The supervising nurse confirmed Beverly’s death, and then asked if I could stay for a few minutes. Of course I could. She called two other nurses (or aides), quietly told them the news, and asked us all to go to Beverly’s bedside. There the two aides shed some tears, and the supervisor quietly, and compassionately, told them they had done everything they could to make Beverly’s last weeks comfortable. They could be glad for that. Even thankful that they had shared their gifts with her.There was nothing “clinical” about this moment. A genuine friendship had developed in this room over the weeks that Beverly had been there. Bev’s strong personality had built a relationship with those who cared for her, and we stood there in silence for some time. It was quite the pastoral moment, thanks not to the pastor, but to the nursing home staff who treated those moments and that passing life with respect, dignity, and a deep peace. Lord, what a holy place that room had become.

After my brief prayer of thanksgiving for Beverly’s life, and for the gifts of those who had cared for her, I drove home having seen that “peace that passes all understanding.” A last breath here…a first glimpse There.

Now, here’s an odd thing. As Beverly died, Joan was at her home and piano movers were packing up that Steinway to move it to the church. It had been Beverly’s last request of us, more a demand really. “You need to get that piano out of there before someone locks up the house at my death,” she said. So, we did as we were told. And when the piano was put in place at the church that very afternoon, Joan spent some time wiping away the dust, and polishing the instrument, while honoring Beverly with good thoughts and silent prayers as she rubbed a restorative shine into the black walnut piano lid.

And it turns out that the piano was about as prickly in its new home as Beverly had been. But that’s another story.

Tomorrow, I’ll write of wine, a Communion staple at one church, and hidden deep in the closet at the next.

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