We hurried home on a busy Fourth of July to gather up a few things before dashing off to a family cookout and fireworks display. And the door bell rang. That interruption was the occasion of the greatest gift exchange that my wife and I had ever experienced. Our young neighbor stood at the door with her sons, seven and thirteen years old, and asked ever so uncertainly for help.
We have lived across the street from this young family for three years. In our second winter of shared life, I met her husband when a blizzard covered our neighborhood with deep drifts of snow. I finished clearing a narrow lane in our driveway when I noticed him. Under-dressed and ill-equipped, he was battling the snow on his drive and sidewalk. So I crossed the street with my snow shovel and some words of advice. “Dress in layers. Put on some sunglasses. Cover your head. Drink lots of water.” We exchanged first names, and he told me the obvious–he wasn’t from this part of the world. He moved his family here from the Great Northwest so he could take a job. I asked what he did and where he had been, and he was impressed when I recognized that he had come from the most elite athletic program in his sport.
I’m not sure, but I believe those were last words we spoke in the ensuing two years. I think I hollered “hello” a few times, and we would wave. But he was rarely home. A month or so ago, I noticed that his wife would wave when she pulled into their driveway. It was a subtle message that something had changed, but I didn’t know what. That changed two weeks ago when I went out for the morning paper. She noticed me, and walked across the street to speak. Her husband had been in the hospital for three weeks, and she asked for my prayers. “You are a pastor, right?” His liver was failing, and so were his kidneys. He had been hospitalized twice before in the last three months for the same symptoms. As we ended our conversation, I asked an awkward question. “What is your name?” I offered to visit him in the hospital, but she said he wasn’t ready for that. I insisted that she let us know if there was anything we could do for her, and she promised that she would. But I didn’t believe her.
Yesterday evening she rang our door bell, and her face said what she could not put into words. Then she finally found the courage to say that things were getting bad. She didn’t ask for anything because she did not know what to ask for. How do you ask a nearly perfect stranger for help of the most personal sort? Their confused, terrified faces told the story. In a moment, I realized that she had spent endless days in the hospital with her husband, and their young sons had, too. We were headed out to an evening of family, friends, and fun, and this weary family was returning to a hospital room. “Boys, we are going to a cook out and fireworks show. Do you want to go with us? There will be kids there.” That simple invitation melted a wall of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. These little guys almost jumped up and down at the thought, and we loaded them up and took off with the words, “You have our cell phone numbers. We will be home at 10, and everything will be fine.” Needless to say, the little guys had the first fun that they had in three months. As we left, she nervously offered a hug for the both of us.
She was waiting on her front porch when we got home. “Boys, do you like movies?” Of course, they did! “Would you like to go see “Spiderman” in a couple of days?” You know the answer to that. Before the conversation ended, we insisted that we should keep the boys the following afternoon. She was visibly relieved to know that she had found someone to help her carry her burden. “I will go see your husband tomorrow morning.” And the boys were so excited to know that they were going to see a movie that they desperately wanted to see. They had given up hope for that, though, because their dad was very sick. And the conversation ended with a hug that was ever so slightly less nervous.
Late this morning, this little family was ready to cross our street when I opened the garage door. I reassured her that I would see her husband before noon, and she said, “He is expecting you.” I kept that appointment, and we spoke in between doctors’ consultations. My wife took the boys shopping and bought them some much-needed shoes. The family isn’t poor, but you don’t think about things like shoes when husband/dad is hanging between life and death. My phone rang in the middle of the afternoon and in the middle of a yard project. They were ready to sign those macabre hospital documents–a living will, a family will, and a durable power of attorney. She asked if we would be willing to sign as witnesses. My wife was not prepared for the sight of a man who was the picture of fitness and healthy only months earlier, but now you could sense the pall of death. Before we left his hospital room, we planned tomorrow. “We will pick you up at 5 in the afternoon, grab something to eat, and then we’re off to see “Spiderman”. Is that ok with you guys?” “Yes! Yes!”
During dinner with friends, my phone rang once more. “He’s afraid. (He is having a feeding tube insert tomorrow morning, and the risks of the procedure and anesthesia are high.) You said to ask if I need anything. Can the boys sleep over because my husband doesn’t want to be alone.” So we finished our meal and hurried home. We exchanged the boys and all the necessary information, then she handed a brochure to April. His sister had given the two of them a gift certificate to a local bed and breakfast on the occasion of his birthday. He told his wife that he would never be able to use it, and he wanted us to have it. What do you say other than, “Thank you”?
Tomorrow will be a full day. We will get the boys ready to go to the hospital in the morning, and we will follow them there after they have had a chance for some family time. We will be there for the medical procedure. I’m just not sure we will ever get to see “Spiderman”.
I have failed to mention two salient facts which add layers of meaning to this tragic story. This family is alone at one of the most critical times of their life.. Their family still lives in the Great Northwest, and it seems that they have made few friends in this new land–which they did not particularly enjoy. Second, during his first hospital visit, his supervisor came to his hospital room to ask for his resignation, effective immediately.
Surely the gift exchange is obvious. We gave them a helping hand at a horrible time. That is obvious. And they gave us the high honor of welcoming us into their world–a world of suffering, of uncertainty, and of life and death. It is a high and holy privilege to be invited to stand with someone when they are facing a profound crisis and, especially, when they are facing death. This blog is not about me. I don’t deserve any commendations because I am simply doing what I’ve have been called and trained to do. This blog is about our young neighbors. Alone. Afraid. Unexpectedly unemployed.
We live in one of the most prosperous, socially-charged cities in Oklahoma, yet our neighbors lived in isolation–so much so that not only did they not have anyone to help them, they didn’t know if they could ask anyone to help. Last night, she said, “Help.” But I heard her say, “I don’t want to be alone anymore.” And every hug has became more confident and affectionate, and every “Thank you” has become more certain and genuine.
As a young minister with a young family, I lived for the day that a parishioner would invite us for a special meal or activity, but, most of the time, we drove away from church alone as everyone else headed off for gatherings of family and friends. As the years have passed, I have come to realize that the most blessed invitation is to be invited to stand beside someone as they suffer. And in the case of my neighbor, as he dies. While I dread invitations like this, I never turn them down. To put it simply, I don’t think anyone should be alone. Ever.
The Prairie Rider