Completely undone in the moment of being her pastor, wanting to have something brilliant to say, but finding nothing at all except to hold her hand, to tell her I love her, and to read her favorite passage from Isaiah 43. And Jesus told me that is all I was to do. Hand holding for hours is a new rhythm to my soul’s rushed life of doing. In those sacred moments where all life goes on an extended pause, I was pastor, I was present, I carried peace and comfort with me to this precious saint who never knew dying would be so hard.
She called for me to come to her and said, “Remember the arrangements we talked about. Don’t forget now.” I promised her all would be taken care of according to her wishes and that was the least of her worries. She told me a woman with long white gloves stood beside her three times telling her it was time to go. She begged God for more time, one last opportunity to speak to her children and tell them parting words. I believe God will grant that request as they are on their way.
When one of her eighteen great-grandchildren entered the room, she perked up. This little boy was autistic and could not give me a high five without the help of his mother. Yet, was it me, or was he more aware of what was happening in the room than anyone. His eyes and hands danced with delight as if he were watching the angels dance and play summersault games in the air. A life that awaited his great-grandma, one where there would be no oxygen tubes to step on, no medicinal patches, no mouth swabs. It was a moment in the grayness of death, that light broke through. Hope. Resurrection life. All sorrow would be no more. It is the already but the not yet. The longed-for dimension, the appointed time, the kingdom not yet fully know. All resting in the week where again we remember and celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus.
Tears trickle down my face as I remember these things now and my lips still tingle. I haven’t slowed down enough to begin grieving myself, its nearly midnight. It’s been a fast couple weeks of hospital visits, a simple surgery that turned out well, but led to extreme ups and downs, to the ultimate doctor words we don’t like to consider until they are spoken, “You have six months to live.” Second opinions, prayer, decisions, and a week, or has it been three weeks later, this. Hand holding, belabored breathing, pain, hospital beds, hospice, a constant flow of family and I am one of them they tell me. I am there, I am present, I listen.
Time is short. She doesn’t want it to end. She has more things she wants to do. The week before the surprise surgery she was painting a house and scrubbing the kitchen floor. The doctor said she was confused as that activity did not match the scans of the ‘c’ word that had overtaken her bodies insides. The doctor did not understand how she was still standing, let alone scrubbing. “You are one tough cookie,” were the doctor’s only words that still ring in my mind from that blur of family tears. She is that. She is tough. Been through wars, raised many of her grandkids and told me she knows them all so well as she “wiped all their bottoms” when they were babies. I am not sure what to do about all the potty talk, the measuring liquids, the writing down of the last bowel movement, the decision of a catheter which means she will never get up again. Hard. Nearly impossible heart-wrenching pain. Pain we weren’t meant to go through. It wasn’t part of the original plan, was it or wasn’t it? Yet somehow the overflow of hugs, family support, church kindness, cards, meals, phone calls and texts of support, of peace, of strength. How do people make it through this without the hope of heaven, the strength of Jesus, the love of a family, I wonder.
Yet there is no question, heaven awaits this dear saint, who prays softly and loves largely. Peace floods the living room where she lies in the hospital bed waiting, her body shutting down, her family with bloodshot eyes lacking sleep as they take shifts watching for the next breath and listening to the groans. Kingdom moments. The moments of what is really important. The treasure chest of life, of stories told and retold, of life lived bravely. Funny moments, scary moments, cherished moments. Kingdom moments. They call me pastor. My lips still tingle.
Note: I wrote this piece that day, in an attempt to process all that was happening. She lived a couple more days to talk to each of her children one last time and tell them they needed to get right with the Lord with her final words to her beloved of sixty-six years “I love you.” This dear lady’s lifelong prayers for her family to know Jesus were fully realized at her funeral service as at least 15 family and friends accepted Christ as Lord and Savior.
Rev. Kelli Westmark is the senior pastor at the Lincoln City Church of the Nazarene on the Oregon Coast and a 2003 graduate of Nazarene Theological Seminary.