Sunday, December 17, 2006

Hallelujah, By and By

Written Sunday, December 17, 2006 

Will Mecom died today, around 2:30 PM.

He had been sent home from St. John's hospital last week with a hospice nurse, and three of his friends he's known since Berkeley in the '60's flew in to stay with him and see out his last days. They were all due to fly back tomorrow to get back to their jobs and families and Will, being the good friend he was, decided to politely pass into eternity before they left so they wouldn't feel guilty.

I had been to see him this past Wednesday night at his place. He was nearly unresponsive by then from the pain and the morphine, but he had a houseful of people laughing and telling stories about him. The hearing is the last sense to go, so we all talked to him and I played some old gospel songs. Jane said she saw his lips moving as I sang, and that he squeezed her hand. As we were hugging him goodbye he mouthed softly to Jane, "Love you."

After church this morning I gathered up my guitar and thought, "Maybe Will would like to hear some Christmas songs..." so I went to the sheet music store and bought a book of Carols to play for him. Then I stopped off to buy flowers and cupcakes and cookies for the people who were dropping by to visit his apartment. I thought to myself "I'm taking too long. I need to hurry up and get over there..." As I drove to his place I looked at a row of trees, shimmering with golden leaves against a bright blue sky, and I thought, "This is such a beautiful day, Will. I wish you were well enough to see it." Just then a small group of birds flew up in a perfect "V" over the trees and, as has happened only a handful of times in my life, I felt what it was like to be in a state of Grace - when all of God's love, and all the beauty of his creation is suddenly brought to my attention.

When I got to Will's apartment his friend Mark was outside, on the phone. He said, "You just missed him." I said "What? Did he go back to the hospital?" and Mark said "No, honey - he's gone. He died about ten minutes ago." I put down my packages and my guitar and started to cry. Two hospice workers rushed past me into the apartment and I followed them in. I saw Will there in his bed, and there was Jane's husband Jack standing beside him. I grabbed Jack and hugged him and about five of us, Will's friends and new acquaintances, stood there for a moment and cried. I looked up and said, "See Will? We told you so." 

One of the songs I sang for Will says it best. It's an old Baptist hymn that perfectly describes what I believe about death, and how we tried to tell Will it was going to be. I know he realizes it now, and I am thankful to God that his fight is over.

I'LL FLY AWAY

Some glad morning, when this life is over
I'll fly away.
To a home on God's celestial shore,
I'll fly away.

I'll fly away, oh glory
I'll fly away, in the morning.
When I die, hallelujah by and by
I'll fly away.

Just a few more weary days and then
I'll fly away.
To a home where joy shall never end.
I'll fly away.

I'll fly away, oh glory
I'll fly away, in the morning.
When I die, hallelujah by and by

I'll fly away.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

A Song for the Dying

Written Tuesday, December 05, 2006 


I recently left a situation that was causing me tremendous pain, and yet I still feel rotten. Why is that? Why do we still feel pain, even when a separation is for the best? When I left my ex-husband I cried for a month, and I was overjoyed to be rid of the bastard. Maybe it's just Tears of Change - a reaction to having spiritual duct tape ripped off after it's been there way too long.

So I've been feeling terrible, adrift, deflated - talking to God and saying things like, "I know there's supposed to be a lesson in every painful episode but as far as I can see, the only two things I learned from this whole situation is that nobody gives a crap about my feelings, and most people are assholes." 

And then, a couple of weeks ago, my friend Jane called me. Jane is in my prayer group at church. She's a nice lady in her 60's who wears cardigans and flats and sensible capri pants. Jane is exceptionally well-bred - a Virginia blue-blood - and she has a spectacular house in Holmby Hills. Our prayer group meets at her house every Monday night and she always has fresh flowers, coffee and treats on fine china, and a roaring fire in the winter. There are 7 people in our prayer group but three are very busy right now so it's usually me, Ada, Ted and Jane. 

Ada is from western Massachusetts and she also wears cardigans. As far as I can tell she's in her mid-sixties, married to an overbearing guy who never lets her talk. We adore Ada, and we encourage her to say whatever she damn well pleases in our prayer group. She has outrageous theological ideas and a wickedly dry sense of humor. Ted constantly interrupts Ada and has called her "Ida" for the 2 years he's known her in spite of the fact that she tries meekly to correct him.

Ted - well, Ted is a piece of work. He's a Harvard Man, also in his sixties - a CPA by trade. He's an exceedingly brilliant man but he's big and lumbering and loud and he desperately wants to stop embarrassing himself in social situations but unfortunately, he cannot.

So Jane called me a couple of weeks ago and said, "I know this is a weird request, but do you you know the song 'Come and Fill our Hearts With Your Spirit' from Taize?" I didn't know the song, but I do know of the Taize service. It's a meditational program put together by a community of monks in the Burgundy region of France. Very pretty music. So I told her no, but I could look it up. Why? "Well, I am worried about Will. He's not doing too well and I think he may only have a couple of weeks left. I've told him about that song, and before he dies he really wants to hear it. Since I'm tone deaf - would you sing it for him?" Will is a fellow parishioner at our church whom Jane and a handful of people have been visiting for several years because he's housebound, suffering from inoperable cancer. I've heard a lot about Will, and I've often wondered what I could do to help, so I told Jane I'd be more than happy to sing for him.

I got the sheet music from our choir director, dusted off my guitar and learned it, then said to Jane, Ada and Ted "Hey - instead of just me and Jane going to visit Will - why don't we all go? We can lay hands on him and pray with him." Eyebrows shot up. I often forget that most people haven't spent a lot of time (or any time) around people who are dying, and by God they certainly don't feel comfortable with TOUCHING someone who is dying. There was reluctant shuffling. Ted said, "Look, I'm a WASP. This is all very strange to me. WASPs don't even talk about death. It's just something you don't discuss." Ada said she would be happy to go because Ada is always amenable to anyone's wishes, bless her heart. I could tell that she was terrified but unwilling to ever use the word "no" in any way shape or form. Ted hemmed and hawed and finally agreed that he'd go too, but that he "Couldn't promise anything."

And so, last night, I arrived at Jane's house with my guitar at 7:15, ready to go to Will's apartment to sing for him. Jane answered the door in a tizzy. "Oh, I'm so glad you're here! Will's not at home. He's in the hospital. They just admitted him today. He's terrified. We have to go see him there." She was running around gathering all the socially correct Jane things she always just happens to have lying around - a pot of fragrant blooming Narcissus around which she tied a flawless golden bow, her prayer book, a paper upon which a short service for the sick was typed, and a small portable communion kit. Ted and Ada arrived and we filled them in on the new details. Ted said, "Um - I need to go outside for a second." and then he ran down the front steps to his car and started tearing through all the papers in and around the passenger seat. None of us had a clue as to what the hell he was doing.

As Jane gathered up the last few items I called St. John's and learned that visiting hours on the Oncology Unit ended at 8:30. We gals did some quick strategizing and figured if we hauled ass and got there by 8 we'd have 30 minutes with Will before they kicked us out.

We ran out to my car and started piling in, yelling out to Ted, "Come on! We've only got 15 minutes to get there!" Ted popped his head up from his pointless passenger seat scramblings and yelled, "Is that the car we're going in?" "YES!" Jane yelled "Hurry!" Ted ran over while adjusting his tweed jacket, then hurriedly folded his long limbs into the back seat as we took off. 

On the way over we talked about relatives who had died, and about how it always seems that sick people pick a time to go when they feel it would be most convenient for the people they love. And then we realized that we'd overshot the hospital by 10 blocks so we had to flip a U-Turn and backtrack.

Ted, who'd been sitting silently in the back seat, said, "Hey - can you unlock the window so I can get some air?" I unlocked it, with apologies, and he said, "Jeez!! It's so HOT in here! It is HOT!" and started fidgeting around as Ava, trapped in the seat beside him, stared at him with growing apprehension. He started coughing - choking, really - and as Jane and I tried to read the signs in the darkness of the side streets of Santa Monica, his choking got worse. He started hacking so hard that he was gagging. I said, "Ted, are you OK? Do you need me to pull over?" And then he rolled the window all the way down and hocked a giant loogee out onto the street.

We all swallowed really hard.

"Well, Ted." I said to break the gagnastic silence, "Do you feel better? Did you cough up a hair ball?" Nervous titters from Jane and Ada. Ted said, "Good lord. I think I coughed up a squirrel back there." And I said, "Well you better get it all out now because I don't think they allow any squirrels on the Oncology Unit."

"Oh - there it is - Visitor Parking" Jane announced. We turned in and handed the car off to an attendant as the clock ticked on - 8:01PM. Our ragtag foursome descended on the front desk, flowers and guitar and eucharist in hand, to be informed that we were in the wrong building so we burst back out into the parking lot, found the right building, and proceeded to get lost inside it for a full 12 minutes at a frantic pace. I was just sure the nurses were yelling into phones in our wake "Security, we've got a band of wild-eyed Episcopalians running around the halls. Get the net."

Finally, miraculously, we found Will's room. Jane knocked softly and said, "Will, it's Jane." and we all cautiously filed in behind her. Will was lying there talking to his nurse as she attached his IV bag. He was so gracious, taking each of our hands and greeting us with "Thank you so much for coming." He smiled at me and said, "I know you. I've seen you around church." Will is only 62 years old. He was a very successful lawyer until his illness laid him low. Now he's dependent on the whims of Medicare and disability to determine his treatment. He told us he put up a huge fight about going into the hospital that afternoon because he's terrified that the next step will be the nursing home, and he absolutely will not go into one of those places. He said, "They didn't even give me a choice. I came to see the doctor today and they forced me to stay here. I didn't even get to go home and get my stuff, and..." 

Jane hugged him and said, "Don't worry about any of that. We will all take care of everything for you. You just get some rest and let the medications take away your pain." For weeks, he has been in agonizing pain from all his inoperable tumors and has refused to go to the doctor because of his fear of hospitals and nursing homes. He tried to hold it off with pills but it finally got to be too much. That's why the doctors insisted he stay at the hospital on this day. His pain was so great it could only be eased with intravenous morphine, and Jane and I have been around enough cancer patients to know that that is a sign of the last days. Jane hugged him hard, patted his back and said cheerfully, "Now - how 'bout some communion!" Will brightened up and said, "Oh, yes, yes. I would love that."

There is nothing more terrifying than staring death in the face, not knowing exactly when it will come like a thief in the night. Will was told eight years ago that he had six months to a year to live, and he's been living with his imminent death all this time. He can't quite convince himself that there is an afterlife, so he is afraid of the blackness of the unknown. He is afraid he'll die and there will be nothing, so he can't let go and let his illness take him. He keeps clinging to what he knows. Jane has sat with him many times in his apartment as he sobbed like a frightened child, saying "I'm so scared. I'm so scared." over and over.

In spite of his doubts about the afterlife, though, Will has developed a strong faith in God. As Jane likes to say, "There are no Atheists in foxholes." You can harangue away all your life about God being as fanciful as the Easter Bunny, but all of a sudden, when you're dying, you want to get to know him. Will loves to have visitations from his church buddies. He loves to pray and receive communion, and he has already had Last Rites from one of the priests and made his confession. 

Jane whipped out her portable communion set and arranged it on his tray table next to the flowers she brought. She carefully laid out the little perfume-bottle sized wine container and the tin of wafers as I tried unsuccessfully to tune my guitar. The stupid B-String wasn't cooperating. 

Jane handed a very flipped-out Ted her prayer book and said, "Ted, do the reading." Much to his absolute shock, Ted performed beautifully. He read the lovely old Anglican prayer for the sick in his loud, booming voice that has been refined by many Toastmaster's gatherings, and Will enjoyed it so much he asked Ted to read it a second time, which Ted did with great delight.

After Jane gave me communion (she got flustered and forgot what to say so she blurted out 'Uhh - the - uh - bread of...heaven!" twice) I started strumming softly, avoiding the stupid un-tunable B-string, and began to sing "Come and Fill Our Hearts." 

Jane said, "Will, this is the song I told you about." His eyes were closed and he smiled. He said, "Oh - it's so pretty, Jane. I like it." .

After communion I sang "Amazing Grace" and "In the Sweet By and By." Will is a southerner, like me, so I figured he'd love those old Gospel tunes. He smiled and tapped his finger and sang along. Then we all held his hands and put our arms around his shoulders and prayed with him. We asked God to take away his pain and his fear. As we stood over him I smelled a horrible smell and thought "That is the smell of death and sickness. I have to keep praying and accept it and pretend everything is OK." and then I re-calculated the direction of the smell and thought, "Hey - wait a minute. That's not the smell of Cancer - that's Ted's BREATH!" so I stopped pretending everything was OK and turned my head away from Ted's open-breathing mouth. I was hoping that everyone would think I had turned away because I was overcome with emotion. We went around the circle and offered up our prayers aloud. Will's prayer was the last one - solemn and elegant. He held our hands very tightly as he prayed. Tears ran down his cheeks. After the "Amen" we all hugged him. 

It was 8:30 - time to go, and much to our surprise we all stood around cracking jokes and laughing as we said our goodbyes. Will said he wished he could have an apple, a big piece of chocolate cake and a glass of cognac because that's what he used to love to do on Winter nights. He told Jane to go by his apartment and get some DVD's he's left there for her husband Jack, and then he thanked us over and over and we thanked him for having us. As we left the room Ted turned back and said, "We love you, Will. We really do."

We walked out of the hospital under the light of the full moon, laughing at all our mistakes during the ad-hoc church service we'd just done and of course we got lost again and wandered around until Ted hollered at an orderly "Hey - how the hell do we get outta here?" 

And now we wait. For the next few days we wait for that phone call telling us that Will, a man three of us met only once and yet love, is gone. We hope to see him again before the end, but we know we may not. All we can do is pray and wait for God to take him in his own time. I cried for Will last night after I got home and was so relieved to be crying for someone other than myself. All my problems vanished in the face of Will's suffering. Surely, the best cure for your own sadness is to be of service to someone else.

So - OK, God. I see there's an addendum to the life-lesson I learned recently: Yes, most people are assholes - but some people are wonderful.