Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Refreshing conversations with the dying.

A local sunset. 

"At 95 its on the cards!"
Last weekend I was informed that a lovely old guy from my last Church was in hospital seriously ill. I have known this man since my childhood, he had been a much respected long standing friend of my parents. He is 95 years old and is much loved and highly respected. Last Sunday afternoon I had joined in the local "Climate March", had climbed my mountain, and then went in to visit him in hospital, unsure of what I would find.  My first arrival was when patients in his ward were having dinner and there was a big sign saying "No visitors", so I went away, called at the Night Shelter, and came back later.  I found my 95 year old friend sitting in the lounge trying to fathom the TV remote. I sat down beside him and said, "I've come to make sure you are behaving." He greeted me and declared that he would much rather talk to me than watch TV and I escorted him back to his room. We sat and chatted like old friends.  There were two things I appreciated about his conversation. 
First the way he appreciated his life. He kept coming up with things he was thankful for - His family; the people who had shared life with him; the measure of health he had enjoyed; the fact that he was "normal"; that being in hospital was for him a relatively new experience;  etc. etc. - He just kept saying, "Oh I am so thankful for...." He was breathless, his blood pressure was dangerously low and there was a lot of uncertainty about his future, but he was clear, lucid and oh so thankful. That was pretty cool.
The second thing I appreciated was the realistic way he talked about the possibility of his death. He told me, "The kids (his adult children) are worried they will phone me one day and nobody will answer the phone. They talk about that being a terrible thing! But at 95 its on the cards! What do they expect? I have had a long and good life, but it will come to an end and it is going to happen some day soon, it is logical." He scolded me. "Your retirement (from ministry) and my health did not coincide correctly. I was expecting you to be my minister and you to take my funeral, but it wasn't to be. You will speak at my funeral won't you?"  I assured him I would. "I'll say 'He wasn't a bad old bloke, where's the food'." I joked. I think he will live a while longer, on my second visit his health was much improved. I loved his realistic view of life, his sense of appreciation and his wisdom, but whenever he does go I will be sad because he has been a good friend. 
"... I know he wants to have a chat with you ASAP."
I received an email on Thursday from a man I did not know. He had got my email address from the "Gold Watch" list. This is a list of retired fire fighters and I am included in any group emails. He told me that his father (who had retired about eleven years ago) had terminal cancer and had been sent home to die. He was searching for me on behalf of his father and he wrote, "he wants you to take his funeral ..... I know he wants to have a chat with you ASAP." He gave me two phone numbers to ring. The next day I rang his home and I was put on to this ex-firefighter who breathlessly said "Hi Dave, thanks for ringing." What do you say to a man who is facing death?  The counselling books may suggest a more PC comment but I said simply, "Hi 'Fred' (not his name) I hear life has turned to crap for you? I'm sorry about that!" "Yeah" he said, "That's the way it goes Dave. It's tough, but you can't do anything about it." We made arrangements for me to call up when the family was there. On Saturday I visited.  This sort of visit I still stew about. I am full of uncertainty. What will I say? Will I say the wrong thing and muck it up? How will I get on with his family? All these questions went through my mind in the middle of the night and as I drove into town to his house. But when I met him and shook his emaciated hand, and saw his familiar smile I relaxed. I sat and chatted with him and his family. He asked questions about the funeral process. I asked about his family and his life. There was warmth, friendship and again appreciation of life, but also realism about what was ahead. I promised that I would talk with the funeral director and maybe get them to visit so he could clarify things with them. I promised to come back and stay in touch and also to communicate with some of his fire fighter mates.  When I left I thought, "Why did I worry about that conversation? It was such a privilege to be part of this family exchange." 

I am a fortunate man to be "let in" on peoples' journey through life.  

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