Sometimes All We Can Give Someone is Our Presence

Friday, November 02, 2018

Sometime all we can give someone is our presence.

“Friendship is not to be sought, not to be dreamed, not to be desired; it is to be exercised (it is a virtue).” ~ Simone Weill.

I know this sounds nuts, but it seems to be that every year about this time a significant loss occurs in our family.

But it’s not nuts because this year has proven no different.

For the last twenty years our family has been close friends with a retired, local, bachelor doctor who never had children. For the last ten years we’ve taken care of our “doctor neighbor” — assuring he was tucked in at night, bringing him daily hot meals, etc. He’s been the only grandfather our younger children have ever known. Caring for him was a labor of love: he was family.

Our dear friend passed away last night, quietly slipping from this world to the next.

Over the last few weeks he had become less lucid as his disease came to its climax, but there were many small moments of clarity.

Yesterday when I visited him, his speech was unintelligible when I arrived. He was trying so hard to communicate his thoughts- I looked at him and said, “It’s ok Bill, I know you’re still in there”.

He winked at me.

Bill often winked at me when we were speaking. Most of the time it was because something he said had unsettled me, and he was trying to smooth over a rough patch in the conversation.

Yesterday we were going through a rough patch, as we both knew he was dying. His body was already showing the signs of shutting down, and his eyes were fixed on something I couldn’t see.

I sat with him yesterday, reading him poems from Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz, and selections from Simone Weill, knowing (because of that wink) whilst he was quiet, he was there.

At one point, when he was able to communicate with clarity, he reached his hand out and grabbed mine, looked me straight in the eye and said, “time is infinite, and there is just so much of it”. I must admit it was a bit of a startling pronouncement due to his demeanor, and the human mystic in me is probably lending too much meaning to this action. I’d like to think in those final hours he was already seeing the place he would go to, when his body stopped working here.

For the last few months, much of Bill’s conversation with me revolved around the nature of (the Judeo-Christian) God, and the lack of religion in his life: he would repeat that he’d been a greedy man, and had not helped people as much as he could. He would weep over this.

He asked me if God would still welcome him, knowing that he’d spurned Him for most of his life. He asked me the same about Christ, focusing on the plastic cross a priest had brought him earlier in his hospitalization.

I can’t know whether these conversations were the result of fear regarding his death, the slow depleting of oxygen to his brain as his body went through the process of dying, or a real reconversion.

I always treated them seriously, in hopes that they were genuine conversations. I know they were some of the only conversations he was having, and felt that if this was what he wanted to speak of during the short occasions he had for non-medical interaction, it must be of some importance.

Bill had no family, and the end of his life could have been so different: he would have been alone in his suffering if it hadn’t been for a small group of friends who wanted to assure he knew he was loved during his final days here.

This is just a reminder there are lonely people out there right now, dying in solitude- they may not be “worthy” of our affection and time, but once they’re gone, the opportunity to love them unconditionally is lost. Being there for someone isn’t about “us” or “them”, it’s about the symbiotic relationship humans need to develop in a society. Caring for someone in their bitter suffering transcends personal differences.

Bill and I disagreed on almost everything. In a heated discussion about abortion he once called Beatrix “defective”.

But loving people isn’t always about agreeing with them. Loving people isn’t even always about liking them. It’s about understanding everyone is made in the image of God, and in each human being there’s a longing for redemption. We fill the places left by the longing with television and sex and books and politics and mind-altering substances, but in the end, when we’re left without these stop-gaps, we must acknowledge the void. This is why deathbed conversions happen: not because people are deficient of reason, but because all of the other things we use to fill empty spaces are useless when you’re at death’s door.

Yesterday, when I was holding Bill’s hand, and unknowingly saying goodbye, he told me I would meet God (today). I conceded and told him I thought it was a very real possibility and when I told him I anticipated the meeting he was perturbed. He saw the prospect as a negative, I did not.

In the end I was given one last opportunity to share the “reason for my hope”.

When he again told me he was fearful of what was to come, I was able to hold his hand and remind him there was nothing to worry about. God doesn’t take account of how greedy we are in this life as long as we have faith in the Resurrection. 

He fell to sleep shortly after this.

I am hopeful he didn’t awaken, and his last human interaction was having his fears comforted, and the last words spoken to him were of reconciliation.

May we all have such an end.

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