Monday, February 08, 2010

Stories may be the most important thing we share about the dead.

John died on Thursday evening, about 6, with friends and family at his side. We decided to have an informal memorial service for him on Sunday afternoon when his brother and son would be able to attend and quickly got the word out. We didn't expect many people to come because few congregants had gotten to know him well, but we needed a time to honor his life and share our memories. And we wanted to know more about who this man was, how he had come to be so independent and resolute in his approach to death.

On Sunday afternoon, in between a choir rehearsal and a children's recital, about 15-20 of us gathered around a chalice lit in honor of John's life and told stories.

I had asked his brother Tom and son Chris to tell us more about John's life and how he grew up and conducted his life before the cancer diagnosis and they told of a man who grew up in harsh conditions, learned to work hard, not to ask too much of anyone, and to be independent. They told of a man who welcomed and relished hard work, never wanted to take the easy road, taught his kids skills and habits that serve them still, and, even when dying, wanted not to ask too much.

Others recounted his love of music, noting that the last thing he did before the crisis that killed him was to attend a concert in our sanctuary, expressing several times to leaders his appreciation for the music. We had all heard from John how proud he was of his children and we all knew that he loved nature and wanted to die in a beautiful place. Those three things---family, music, nature---formed the unwavering center of his life.

His dogged pursuit of independence drew laughter and tears, as we shared moments when he'd refuse help, send the hospice workers away if they came too often, rage at the weakness that was gradually overcoming him and then bounce back briefly to enjoy a moment with Sara or Kent or Sally, whose friendship sustained him during these past months.

We heard from his friends in the trailer park---Steve, Kristin, Laurie, Diane, Scott and Al---whom he took into his heart as the kind of friends who are really family. We all felt like family members by the end of the service, when we extinguished the chalice and said goodbye.

Tom, Chris, and Sara lugged in cartons of non-perishable foodstuffs that John had stockpiled over the months plus personal hygiene items, all of which will go to the local foodbank, Good Cheer.

And I thought once again how we give an immense gift to those who come to our rescue in time of need---allowing those folks to take care of us, watch out for us, companion us. John gave us that gift by coming to our congregation needing our help. He gave us a chance to serve him, to know him, to love him, and to mourn his death. His life made a difference to us. May our lives make a difference to others, in both our living and our dying.


Miss Kitty said...

[wiping tears]

What an eloquent tribute to your friend. The post title speaks volumes of truth.

LinguistFriend said...

And one of the things that he did well was to choose as a minister someone who could cope with both life and death, as your friend John did, in his own way, which clearly was not an easy one. The only immortality we have is in our effect on the world and its inhabitants, motivating those who can speak to tell stories of us, spreading and sharing that degree of immortality.

ms. kitty said...

His brother Tom made it clear that he chose us because of our open-minded attitude toward Washington's Death with Dignity law. The Lutheran church he'd previously gone to disapproved of his decision.

Thanks for your kind words, LF.