THE CHAPLAIN Series

 

 

You Must Go Home Again

“Lydia, come home.”  Confused and frightened, the dying woman whispered again, “Come home.”

Arline was 89 years old and her mother’s best friend. Lydia knew the woman had been ill, even knew that she had lung cancer, but she had no idea that Arline was this close to death. Why had someone not called her two weeks ago, a week ago?  Now, with the aid of a Hospice worker, Arline was on the telephone.  “Come home.”

“I’m coming. I’m so sorry.  I’m coming,” was all she could answer.  Lydia began making airline arrangements to fly to the Midwest.

The next morning, Arline died.  

Lydia’s reservations were for the next day, so there was nothing to do but go to work. 

The spiritual Presence who had walked by her side most of her life seemed to be working overtime, sending messages to prepare her for her journey home. 

An 81-year-old woman turned up in the chaplain’s adult healing circle.  The woman’s daughter had checked her mother into the mental health unit because the old woman wanted to die.

Lydia was dazed, but started the talking circle. When the feather reached the elderly patient, she took it, and began to speak eloquently about her life and her wish for it to come to a close. Lydia didn’t argue. She truly wanted to understand, and encouraged the woman to continue her story. When the circle was finished, the woman told Lydia it had been the first honest conversation she’d had on the subject of death.

“Perhaps, my friend reached this point, as well,” Lydia wondered. “She was several years older than this woman and had lived a very significant life. Maybe she was okay with it coming to a close.”

It is also possible that by allowing this woman today to openly reflect on the end of life, you have helped her find meaning for the rest of her life, the Presence offered.

“I hope so. It was a blessing to meet her,” Lydia answered.

The day was full of senior encounters. Lydia visited with an 89-year-old man, sitting with his 92-year-old wife.  The wife was unconscious, on a respirator, and expected to die soon.  Between his tears, the man shared many of the details of their marriage and time together.  It was a moving story and Lydia hoped that the elderly man did not see her eyes well up or her body shaking.

Lydia looked straight at the Presence and silently whispered, “Okay. Enough.” 

“It will be good to get away from the hospital for a while,” she added, “if even to attend a funeral.”

~~

After numerous mechanical failures and delays, the airline managed to get Lydia to her destination an hour and a half after Arline’s graveside service.  Lydia was too tired to be angry.  She had been imprisoned in the air, strapped into a miserable seat, while the clock ticked on.  The appointed hour of her friend’s interment approached, was noted, and passed. The plane eventually landed with no more grace than it had been able to muster at takeoff.  At least, Lydia was now firmly on the ground.             

“Good enough,” she sighed.

In  rental car, Lydia drove out to the working-class suburb where she had been raised.  Her purpose that night was to console her mother.  In the morning she would visit with her friend’s daughter and prepare readings and an invocation for the large public memorial service later in the day.

After 40 years, this would be the first time Lydia would enter Arline’s large, turn-of-the-century church.  A field of wildflowers filled the sanctuary.  The burial had been the day before, true; but this was to be a celebration of life with flowers spilling down the aisles and out into the foyer.  Arline’s older sister, Rosa, a nationally renowned musician, took her place at the pipe organ. In tribute to her sister, she engulfed the massive worship space with the deep sounds of ancient music.

Following the service, friends gathered at the family home, located in Lydia’s old neighborhood.  She slipped out, walked down the alley, around the block and up the street, now standing in front of the house where she had lived as a child.  It was Arline who had baked the pies, encouraged her music lessons, took her to the library, talked about local and national politics in her presence.  It was cold and lonely in this house, but it was warm and lively just down the street where Arline lived.

Tonight was dark, warm, and muggy. A lightning bug hovered in midair, so easy to catch even as a child.  Lydia reached out, scooped it up, and watched it glow in her cupped hands. Then she let it go.

It was seldom dark in the summertime where Lydia now lived and it was seldom, if ever, this warm. There were no lightning bugs.  Lydia had been gone for 30 years and she missed the flashing, incandescent little insects.

Lydia returned to the gathering and accompanied her mother across the river to the adjacent community where she now made her home. The mother and daughter stayed up late talking about many things. About 3 am, Lydia vomited.  She was ill throughout the night, finally getting to rest as the sun was coming up.  She slept maybe two hours and woke up, still ill, chilled and shaking.  The episode lasted throughout the day and then subsided.

Completely drained, Lydia headed back to the airport and boarded the plane. If the trip back took forever, it would be all right with her. 

“Goodbye, Arline,” she whispered. Looking out the window at take-off, Lydia knew she would miss her friend terribly, and that she would never see another lightning bug. 

~~

Back at the hospital, Lydia began to think that her spiritual Presence was a compulsive tyrant.  She didn’t need more lessons on growing old and dying.  She could almost handle the death of a child better than that of an old person right now.

Beep.  She was called to hear the confession of a delicate, tiny 83-year-old woman who was afraid to die because she had had a 20-year affair with a married man.  The man had died many years past, but now that she was facing her own death, she was frightened.

“Good Lord,” Lydia growled at the Presence.

She needs you, the Presence shot back.

The chaplain listened to the woman’s story. Could one soften a person’s theology of sin during the last few days of her life?  Lydia spoke of God’s love and forgiveness. She prayed with the woman. She did her best to bring some sense of God’s compassion and understanding to this frail woman lying in a hospital bed.  The woman, gracious and kind, thanked Lydia for her words of comfort.  As she left, Lydia had no idea if the woman believed a single word she had offered.

~~

A few days later, an elderly woman arrived at the hospital from a local nursing home.  She was a “no code”, meaning that nothing would be done to resuscitate her if she were to stop breathing.  Unconscious, she was expected to die soon.

Lydia realized that the woman was a lady with whom she had developed a close relationship during the woman’s previous hospitalization.  At that time, she had been treated for emphysema and a broken hip – neither being very good medical conditions for an aging woman.  The woman had shared her life story with the chaplain: miserable, back-breaking childhood, poor most of her life, mean and ornery some of the time, compassionate and spiritually reflective the rest of the time.

While the patient had been hospitalized earlier, her husband died on a different unit.  Lydia had conducted a memorial service for the husband in the hospital chapel and had arranged for the wife to be brought down in a wheelchair to attend.

Now alone, the woman entered a nursing home to wait to die.  She didn’t want to die, she desperately wanted to live, but her options were limited.  Lydia had promised to visit, but never did. A few days later she conducted the woman’s funeral in the same chapel where she had conducted the husband’s service a few weeks earlier.

“I want out of this business!” the chaplain shouted at her spiritual companion. 

If their sins are forgiven, came the Voice. So are yours.

Lydia stared in the direction of the voice, paused, and returned to her office to prepare some grief materials for a presentation she was to give to a group of new hospice volunteers.  Her heart was not in it.

~~

It had been nearly two years since the family mental health trauma and a few months since her friend’s death.  The chaplain’s older daughter was now in college and Lydia had promised to take the girl to purchase books for her second semester.  In the process, they found themselves in a pet store and Lydia splurged on a goldfish and bowl for the girl’s dormitory room.  Fish’s name was “Nacho”, presumably because of its color. 

It was a pleasant day. The mother and daughter had brought the family dog along with them. Since it was dead of winter, Lydia left the car running to keep the dog warm while they ducked into the fish store. When they returned, the dog had jumped at the window, pushed down the post, and locked them out of the car. 

Lydia telephoned her younger daughter who drove to the rescue of mother, sister, dog, and fish.  She was sixteen now, with a license.  Thank the Presence.

You’re welcome.     

A junior in high school now, Lydia’s younger daughter was by all appearances, as emotionally stable as any other kid in her crowd.  Lydia thoroughly enjoyed watching and listening to her daughter practice her role in a Woody Allen play called God.  In the piece, two characters, “Hepatitis” and “Diabetes” argue over how the play itself should end.

“We’re actually a normal family, aren’t we?” she asked the Presence.

As normal as you would want to be, came the response.

The next evening, mother and both daughters – without dog -- returned to the pet store to purchase a second goldfish, as a companion for Nacho.  They named him Bean Dip.

After dropping one child off at her dormitory, Lydia and her youngest drove up the mountain to the house her husband built. Late at night, the sky was deep blue black. In fact, everything -- the road, the trees, the broad plain where the flatlanders slept -- everything was deep, cold, and black -- except that it was alive, alive with stars above and with winter’s twinkling, shimmering city lights below. 

“A gazillion lightning bugs,” she thought.

           

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