A couple of years ago, I came home from work late on a Tuesday evening in April. It was already dark outside and yet the house next door, inhabited by good friends, seemed to have every light in the house on. There were extra cars in the driveway. I had an ominous feeling. Jack was older and his health had been slowly declining. As I took my mail from my mailbox, I found the dreaded note that said to stop over, regardless of the time. I went over, fearing I might already be too late.
I was greeted into a home so long familiar to me, now filled with both a sadness and a sense of peaceful anticipation. Jack's wife took my arm and told me that there had been a sudden change and hospice had come. He was no longer able to speak more than an occasional word and the dying process had begun. In the months preceding that evening, I had often wondered how I could bear a world without Jack in it. We had been friends for 30 years. He was family to me - not by blood, but by spirit. I did not know how I could bear it, yet I knew that I was on the path that would teach me.
I walked into the bedroom where his hospital bed was, afraid of what I would see. It was Jack's body, but his face was now almost frozen into a new expression I had never seen before: eyes closed, mouth stretched open wordlessly. When I voiced my thought that perhaps he was asleep, I was simply told, "This is how he is now..." Much of the day, people had been calling and the phone was held to his ear so that friends from around the country - from around the world - could say their loving farewells to him. As I entered the room, I wondered if this was to be my farewell time with him. What could I possibly say?
I sat with him for a long time. Most of the time I said nothing. But I told him I loved him. Since Jack had always been a joker, I waited for the teasing remark that did not come. I grew bolder. I commented on how hard it must be to keep living in a body that was so sick and worn out. (He responded with a low groan of acknowledgment.) I told how much I would miss him but also expressed awe and wonder that he would soon be meeting face-to-face the God he had spent his whole life serving. I left his side so others could go in and I talked a bit with his family. It was very late by then and it seemed time to be going home but ... would this be the last time? I went back in and held his hand again. Finally, his eyes still closed, his voice came forth so clearly that it startled me: "Thank you for eveything." I was floored. He was thanking me? I thanked him, leaned over and kissed his cheek. As I left his room for the last time that night, I said in a light voice, "If you go to God before I get back, tell him I said 'hi!'".
The next day, Wednesday, I spent a bit more time with him but his spirit was pulling further from his body and there were no more words. I told him that it was OK for him to go, that we would be all right. I assured him that we would not stop loving him, whether he was in his body or not. Thursday morning came and he was still alive. I stopped over and kissed him before I went on to work. When I came home that night, he was gone. His spirit had left his body and his body had been taken to the place where empty bodies go... He went into the heart of God and we were left behind.
As I grow older and my family and friends grow older, the passing from this life seems more and more a reality. Of course, I have known others who have died and I have heard the stories of passings that many others have shared with me. Certainly not all (or many) of those stories have been as sweet and peaceful as this one. People coming to me in pain have told me of horrifying fatal accidents, perpetrated by strangers - or even worse - themselves. I have been told of the murders of loved ones and the suicides of children and parents and friends. Strangers come to me and share how much they miss their moms or their dads or their sisters, brothers and best friends. The tears flow, more often agonizingly than peacefully. As the years progress, I know that the time draws closer when these stories will increasingly be mine, in some form or another. It can be no other way.
When I return now to my fearful question of the past - how could I endure in a world without Jack? - I have discovered that it is not nearly as terrifying as I had expected. Have no misunderstanding: I miss him in the way that I knew him, that is, I miss his physical presence, his touch, his voice, his laugh. And yet he is not gone from me. I do believe that, when he left behind his worn out body, his spirit - the true essence of Jack - was drawn into the heart of God. When I meditate and pray, opening my heart to God, Jack is there. His body is long gone, but he is there, living more perfectly than ever the love of which his life here was just a beginning. He is part of a whole community of love, a community made up of many, many loves - some I have seen and known in my lifetime; others, from different times and cultures, I have known only in spirit. As I know Jack, I know my grandma and grandpa and a few friends who have passed. But I also know Francis of Assisi and Therese de Lisieux. I know Maximilian Kolbe and Elizabeth of Hungary. There are many, many loves in this community and I have only begun to know them.
This all sounds so beautiful, so hopeful. But what of all of the horrible deaths - the unfair ones that make no sense? What of all of the deaths still to come that I cannot imagine bearing? I don't know. I can't know. I cannot know if there is something around the corner that will leave me feeling as broken (or more broken) than the many people who come to me and share their stories. I can only hope that, if I come to be in that place (or perhaps I should said when I come to be in that place), the community of many loves will surround me and hold me, supporting me along the journey until it is my turn to enter the heart of God more fully.
Come, let us walk together. When we feel empty and sad and frightened and angry and overwhelmed by our losses, we will walk together. Whether the loss was yesterday or 50 years ago, we will walk together. We will close our eyes and trust, hoping in the loves we cannot see, hoping in the One who will one day draw us all back into his heart, where together we will dance.
("Jack's bush", planted in his yard at the time of his death, here blooming in the April sun, 2010.)