PRIVILEGE, Part I
Several weeks ago I spent an afternoon with a man who was very ill. I knew that he did not have long to live and he had asked to be brought back to the congregation where he had served and found peace. I remembered him vaguely, but I did not know him well.
I serve as a care minister in our church. That is someone who has taken training in listening. It is that simple and that complex. It is hard to listen and not interject one’s own thoughts and opinions. It is particularly difficult for me, but I have wanted for a long time to learn how to be present with people, to make space for them to be all that they need to be as others have done for me over the years. It was during those times that the space I was given allowed me to grow in the best possible ways.
This day I was called to come and be with Joe. I had asked to trade times to sit with him in the morning instead of the afternoon because my husband and I were having company that night and I thought I needed the afternoon to finish up the straightening and cooking. However, the other care minister was unable to trade times. She had out-of-town company, so I went at my appointed time. Just before I left my house, I got a call from our company. They wanted us to come to their home. That worked well for me and I even called the man in charge of scheduling care ministers and told him I could stay two extra hours since I had been relieved of my last minute responsibilities.
I arrived to find a volunteer doctor and retired hospice nurse making Joe comfortable. They had shaved him and changed his bed. I held his hand and reminded him who I was and that I would be there all afternoon next to his bed if he needed anything. He dropped off to sleep almost immediately. Their care had truly given him comfort.
As the afternoon proceeded, two men who provide a covenant meal at Respite twice a month arrived with their bounty. Respite is a place in our church where those who don’t have anyone to care for them after they have been released from a hospital can come to complete their recuperation. We provide eight beds, three meals a day with snacks, and a quiet place to rest, read, watch TV, and be in community as they heal. Anyone who has been in Respite can return for one of these covenant meals. Sometimes there are twenty or thirty people who come. This particular day there were only the friends staying in Respite, the two chefs, and the staff and volunteers that stay with our Respite friends, and me.
Charlie, a long time friend of Joe’s, came by to see him. Joe opened his eyes and acknowledged Charlie, but he didn’t speak. Late in the afternoon, a volunteer, Amanda, came to see if I wanted to eat. I decided I needed to stretch my legs and get a glass of iced tea so Amanda sat down beside Joe as he slept.
Not long after I returned, something changed in the room. It was almost imperceptible at first. Joe’s breathing slowed, but he remained calm. Then I felt rather than saw or heard a group of visitors about Joe’s bed. I know that sounds strange. There were no twinkling lights or chilled breaths of air or unusual murmurings. But I felt the presence of what I can only describe to you as loving souls gathering around Joe. I sat on and Joe’s breath became raspy. I knew that it was not bothering him, but I called for Ali, the staff person, to come and help turn him. He had been in one position for a long time. She did, but he didn’t seem to want to be turned so we let him be.
In a little while Joe’s breathing slowed more and then hesitated. A few more breaths and it stopped. The room was empty except for Joe’s roommate who was napping and me. I knew Joe had left with all those who had come for him. His body remained, but Joe was gone. We called the director and he came to take care of the formalities.
I was present when my grandmother and when my mother died. They had good deaths, also, gentle passings. However, Joe’s passing gave me a reminder of what death really is, a transition of our earthly life to our eternal one and one that is not done alone.
One of the volunteers in the hall came to tell me how sorry he was I had had to be there when Joe died. I could only shake my head. What a privilege it was to be there I told him! Those words just flowed out from somewhere deep within me. Our congregation had given Joe what he wanted, a loving place to pass over to God. I happened to be there.
I have been struggling with the word privilege ever since that afternoon. It was that moment in time that made me fully aware of what privilege is. It is a gift given by chance that can become an opportunity. It has nothing to do with us, who we are, what we do, what we deserve. It is important, however, to be aware of our privileges or we might miss something of eternal value. And all things of value are even better when shared, so I am sharing this holy moment of privilege with you.