From the archives …
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I was so cold. I had been feeling cold for some months, between experiencing the coldest winter on record for central Florida and the increasing wasting caused by my failing liver. But never had I felt
Lying on an emergency room bed I was coming to grips with yet another encephalopathic blackout. These were bad enough, coming around and realizing that I had lost hours and sometimes days of a life already hanging in the balance. But this time I was focusing on the person who was battling on the fronts of wife, ICU nurse, and best friend – Sandra. She said she wasn’t cold. But she looked so
tired. From my lifting haze, I saw not only what my disease was doing to me, but in that moment more importantly, to her. I guess a less selfish man would have wished death to come quickly to ease her burden. But in that moment, I became very afraid to die. I became very afraid to be without her. Was that the cold?
I had confronted the fear of death many times – not of my own, but of others, in a near thirty year career of providing pastoral care. I lived growing in the confidence of being blessed by the skills and character to be an appreciated and recognized chaplain in times of distress. My confession is that with that confidence developed a hubris that lied about my vulnerability. My need for others was
met by meeting the needs of others. The liver disease was not alone responsible for my wasting.
Most of my hospitalization was in a teaching hospital that housed one of the few Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) programs in our area. At Sandra’s urging, and without my being aware, I started to have student chaplains show up in my room – “puppy chaplains” as I had called myself in those early stages and continued then. When I felt enough energy to do so, I enjoyed talking about my
experiences in the field and fielded their questions with almost a grandfatherly zeal. But their pastoral presence was not something I sought or embraced.
One late afternoon a man introduced himself as being John, one of the chaplain interns. He was closer to my age, and I quickly learned that he was in the CPE process as one who was seeking something
different. After some talking I learned that John was closing his practice as an adult cardiologist to follow his perceived call to provide pastoral care. Interesting, but probably another story of a mid-life crisis, was my initial assessment.
There just were not enough blankets to warm me. Sandra had gone to find yet another, when I heard her quietly speaking: “Thanks for coming down – I think he needs to talk”. She came back into my curtained cubicle with someone who looked familiar. “You remember John, the chaplain? He’s come to see you.” Did he bring a blanket? It was just so cold.
I was number one on the transplant list for a new liver. It was of little difference at that point. The person seen only by a few could no longer be hidden. There was no glib greeting, or reaching out to shake his hand. “Am I going to die?” came from a place deep within. And then there was an invitation: “What are you afraid of?” The tears flowed with the force of eight months of uncertainty,
bitterness, confusion, pain, and yeah, fear. My fear of being without Sandra. He listened, and responded not with a pastorally polished presence, but with warmth. He took my hand. He did not have answers. He did find something to celebrate – the greatest of all gifts, that of love. He helped to look beyond my tears and fears to see hers. And he prayed – not that my life be spared, or for hope or faith, but in thanksgiving. For what we had. For what we were. For not being alone. For the presence of an ever-loving and ever-faithful God who promised to be with us always. As we talked, cried, and prayed my cynical soul thawed.
It was not cold anymore. My liver was still failing, and I was still very sick, but I was not cold.