Even during cheery holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, death has a way of reminding us it’s still hanging around. Such as when my wife’s Aunt Maxine called a few days before Thanksgiving.
“Dori, this is Max. I just wanted to call and wish you a happy birthday.” Aunt Maxine’s shaky 90 year-old voice quavered on our voice mail. “Call me when you get back. . . . Bye.”
Dee Dee’s mom, Dori, passed away twenty-two years ago, on November 19, 1989, the day before she turned 67.
Aunt Maxine, Doris’ older sister, has Alzheimer’s. It’s remarkable then that she remembered Doris’ birthday and phone number (which may be the best reason not to transfer your departed parents’ number to your own land-line). We’ve now had several calls from Aunt Maxine, even after we went to visit her in the nursing home. We had to tell her–again–that she is the only one left. All of her siblings have passed.
She didn’t cry this time.
During our visit to the nursing home Aunt Maxine said, “I’ve reached a dead-end.” Dee Dee and I looked at her, aching for her. Then Maxine said, “I don’t have anything left to look forward to.”
How do you tell a woman who can no longer hear well and who can’t remember what she just said–much less what you said–that there may be Something to look forward to?
Talking about such things is difficult under normal circumstances. When death is near more so.
I once had a friend, Dean, who had terminal cancer. One night–late–I met Dean and his wife, Diana, at the hospital. His wife was looking for one final treatment, one last shred of hope. Dean had been a state champion weight lifter, tough, self-made. Now he was but a gray shadow. Dying.
“I’m sorry,” the doctor told her. “All we can do now is manage his pain.” We cried. The doctor stood while we prayed and then touching Dean’s shoulder, left. We wheeled Dean out of the hospital. But we couldn’t get him back in his tall four-wheel drive truck. So I loaded him into my Oldsmobile to take him home.
Driving down the dark highway Dean said, “Eugene, I’m dying. How can I know I’m going to heaven?” The car radio was off. Bright car lights approached on the other side of the road. Dean breathed painfully. I waited. Prayed.
“Dean, this cancer is terrible but it’s not God’s punishment.” He lifted his head and glanced at me, a slight smile on his gaunt face.
“I haven’t always been a very good man. I got divorced. I don’t always treat my kids right. Worse.”
“Yeah, I know. God knows too. That’s what all that stuff on the Cross was about: forgiveness, grace. You love God don’t you?”
“Jesus loved you first. When the time comes, he’ll be glad to see you.”
Dean fell silent after that. His breathing grew labored. The car groaned under a heavy silence. Finally I couldn’t hear him breathe anymore. I kept glancing across the car trying to see him whenever a car passed, yellow light sliding over Dean’s naked head. His eyes were closed and he didn’t move. We exited the highway and his head lolled. He slumped against the car door. His hand dropped onto the seat.
Oh God, he’s dead, I thought. He’s died right in my car. Did I say enough?
I pulled into his long dirt driveway. Diana was already there, standing small next to Dean’s tricked-out truck, my wife, Dee Dee beside her. Diana shaded her eyes against the car lights. I pulled up and stopped distant from her. What if he’s dead and she opens the door and he falls out. That would be horrible. Diana approached and my heart raced. Please . . .
Dean sat, sagging and empty faced. God . . . Diana grabbed the door handle. Please . . . Dean’s body shifted. God. Suddenly Dean lifted his head and he said, “Are we home?” Dean looked out the window and then at me and blinking said, “Thanks, Eugene.” A weak smile. “I’m ready now.”
We grieved and celebrated Dean’s other home-going shortly after that strange night. He had Something to look forward to.
I wanted to tell Aunt Maxine I believe there is something–or Someone–to look forward to. And she could believe that too. I wasn’t able to. So I prayed God would have a conversation with her. Speak through her muddled brain straight to her soul. Maybe she would be able to hear Him. Maybe as Christmas begins to take place around her, a song, a verse, a picture of a manger will remind her Who was born so long ago. Who she has to look forward to.
Maybe next time we visit Aunt Maxine God will make it so we can help her see that, though death is still hanging around, it does not have the final word.
Eugene C. Scott doesn’t always write about such serious, difficult subjects. Sometimes he writes about silly, difficult subjects. Eugene co-pastors the Neighborhood Church which is preparing to celebrate Christmas through an Advent series called “The Gift of Christmas Presence.”