I guess unless you’ve walked a mile in a person’s shoes, you really can’t make a value judgment or fully understand the challenges and difficulties they face. Most of us can’t begin to imagine functioning with less than a fully operative heart. We take for granted the ease at which we embrace a very active lifestyle. Almost twenty-five years ago, my friend’s heart attack took from him 40% of his heart’s capacity. And yet somehow he managed to discover the will, with God’s help, to move forward. He was intent of living life to the very fullest.
Lifestyle changes are tough to make, but he wisely took on the challenge as though it were a life and death situation. In reality it was. That adds a whole new concept to the importance of giving up wine, women and song. Toss in the cigarettes and coffee and you get some idea of his determination to live. Actually, he didn’t have the capacity to make those changes on his own. He relied on God to provide him the resourcefulness to make the needed adjustments and modifications and he never looked back.
I had the privilege of spending a lot of time with my friend and his family over the last 3 or 4 days of his life. I don’t have the words to fully chronicle or describe the experience because, frankly, it was beyond human instrumentality. From my perspective, it was nothing short of a miracle orchestrated by God. I’ll simply say it was a perfect, peaceful, harmonious experience.
I observed many tender moments. I was especially touched by the heartfelt communication between my friend and his doctor. In a day where medical practice is often defined as assembly line medicine, it was refreshing to sense something very different. The level of compassion and concern was genuinely heartfelt.
My friend expressed his gratitude and thanks to the cardiologist for providing him a lifeline over the past twenty-five years. The doctor said, “No, No, I need to thank you. You’ve taught me a lot. It has been my privilege to have you as a patient”. His words seemed genuine and true. The doctor’s voice tone, his level of emotion, and his body language all indicated the sincerity of his words.
I almost felt guilty for overhearing the conversation. It was genuine, heartfelt and personal. Yet, I had the thought: “How many people at death’s door would take the time to thank their doctor? I might have been more inclined to say, “I want my money back” instead of “thank you.”
Monday evening I had an opportunity to visit one-on-one with my friend. During the time we shared, we talked of many things. He thanked me for being his pastor and talked about his perception of the difference I had made for our church. He was thoughtful and kind in his assessment. Like his doctor, I found myself responding, “Don’t thank me. I’ve learned a lot from you.”
So what did I learn? The first life lesson he taught me was communicated on the threshold of our moving to Henly. That was decades ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. It was part of my orientation to country living. He said: “Don, the first thing you need to remember about living in the country is the importance of leaving the gate the way you find it. If the gate is open, leave it open. If the gate is shut, open it and drive through, stop and go back and shut it. You always leave the gate the way you find it”.
Across the years I discovered: “Leave the gate the way you find it” was more than just a casual suggestion. I don’t think many would elevate it to a life and death situation, but failure of others to adhere to that rule of the land was a source of much frustration for my friend. It wasn’t a life and death situation, but it was a source of contention. You didn’t have to know my friend well to know that I’m telling you the truth.
Both his children mentioned it, but his ability toward the end of his life to provide the gift of forgiveness when he perceived he had been wronged is another lesson imparted through his life. Like giving up wine, women and song, the gift of forgiveness was something he couldn’t negotiate on his own. That, too, took God’s help and indwelling presence, but it left him with a sense of peace.
A third lesson had to do with managing disappointment. The last several weeks or months of his life were an emotional roller coaster. For weeks he underwent medical testing to ensure he was healthy enough for a heart transplant. As it turned out, he was too healthy for a heart transplant. Consequently, the transplant was not an option. A subsequent heart attack left him at death’s door, but eligible for a transplant. The options available for him went back and forth from a potential lifeline to having no hope at all. The thing that amazed me was how quickly he was able to hit the reset button and trust God for the outcome. He really did believe that “all things work together for good to them that love the Lord”.
At one point in his planning he expressed his willingness to forfeit his independence and subsequently live in the home his son and daughter-in-law are having constructed. He was delighted that his bedroom would be on the first floor at the front of the house. That way he could “be protective, shoot intruders and bake cookies for his grandchildren”.
My friend died one day short of the 36th anniversary of his mother’s death. By happenstance, his funeral yesterday was on the 36th anniversary of her funeral. Both funerals were at 10:00 a.m. in the same funeral home 36 years apart. Whether by happenstance or Divine providence, it was my privilege to conduct both funerals. I was also at the bedside of each when they died.
The fourth lesson I observed from watching my friend was the absence of fear associated to his death. His trust was in the promises of God and he never doubted that reality for a minute. He was like the Psalmist who wrote: “Yea thou I walk though the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff they comfort me”.
As with David, my friend didn’t worry about the tomorrows because his faith was in the One who held tomorrow.
My friend refused to give up, or to retreat to bitterness, or to fall prey to lasting depression. He knew that God would take care of the tomorrows, and he was intent on living the todays. He did it lovingly. He did it majestically. He did it with a sense of the indwelling Christ.
Consequently, it’s been a memorable and fulfilling week for me.
All My Best!