While working at Duke Divinity School, I was exposed to the topic of dying well time and again through the Duke Institute on Care at the End of Life. The Institute would regularly bring in different speakers to talk about how to die well. One person spoke of the role of music in dying and played a harp while she spoke. Other seminars dealt with children. Still others dealt with older adults.
I was intrigued by the offerings but never took advantage of them.
While our death is the one guarantee that we have in life, none of us like to think about our own mortality. We like to think that we will last forever, instead. Yet, I have been thinking a lot about dying well in the last few weeks due to a colleague's example.
I was only around John a handful of times. I met him first at a meeting of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations. Our paths crossed again a few times when he would come for a lectionary discussion group at Starbucks. Our churches are not too far apart, and both of our congregations are under development. We had plenty to talk about but I never made the time.
John retired not too many months ago and was setting out to make his retirement dreams a reality. He was traveling in India, preparing for the hiking adventure of a lifetime when he got very sick.
Following Christmas, I received an email from John sent from one listserv to another. It read:
From family and community networks you have heard about my six week captivity in hospitals and ICU’s in Nepal and India. Last Saturday I was Fed Ex’d back to Washington. After a week at George Washington University Medical Center, I finally made it all the way home. In addition to the care of family and friends, I am now in hospice care. My bed is centrally located in our living room, a setting conducive to good conversation.
We all come into the world in basically the same way, but the ways of leaving are innumerable. The fortunate get to have some influence over their dying. I am one of the fortunate. I look forward to having you join me in the conversation.
In the early couple of weeks, family and friends from out of town are visiting. Please call my cell phone to set a time to visit, preferably in the latter part of the afternoon. I do rather well with visits, less well by telephone.
Barbara joins me in sending love.
I did not accept the invitation to join the conversation. I wish I would have, however. I think John was walking on holy ground when he wrote this email. I believe John knew exactly where he was and whose he was when he wrote this email. I believe John was his own institute on how to care and be cared for at the end of life.
John died nearly two weeks ago. His service was on Saturday. You can read more about the extraordinary faith of both him and his family on his former church's website. It is a powerful witness for all to read of how to live and how to die.
I am thankful for John. I am thankful for his church's faithful ministry amongst the homeless in downtown Washington. I am thankful for his steadfast commitment to make sure that their development did not do anything to impact the people Christ had called them to serve. And, I am thankful for the lessons he has taught me through messages written by him and his family just before and immediately following his death.
May we all live and die in such a way.
Thank you for your witness, John.