I had a profound experience today. It isn’t about me at all–in fact, I’m one of hundreds who experienced it. Yet it’s deeply personal to me.
I went to church this morning. I’m not exactly a devout Catholic, and I don’t go to church every week, but I went today. This is the same church where I worked for 6 years as the business manager.
There is a part of the Catholic Mass when people have the chance to say out loud something that they want the congregation to pray for. Sometimes they’re general statements–an end to war, intolerance, bigotry, etc–and sometimes they’re personal.
Today the priest, Fr. Gary, added his own prayer to those shared by the people in the pews. Fr. Gary pointed to the pew where John and his wife–both of whom are beloved by the college students and older members of the congregation–have sat every Sunday for the last 25 years. They weren’t in the pew today. John is in his late 80s, and he’s been struggling with cancer for at least 5 years.
Fr. Gary said that he delivered the last rites to John this past week, and that John is now in hospice. John is dying.
I let those words sink in for a moment. John is dying. The next time I would see him would be at his funeral. I’m not particularly close to John, but I did help to tend his yard a few times when he was struggling with chemo. He and Evie are extremely generous to the students; it was the least I could do to help. And now John’s battle with cancer was ending.
30 minutes later, something remarkable happened.
At the end of Mass, before we were dismissed, Fr. Gary said a few words about the past few weeks. He mentioned some highlights and low points. As he spoke, there was at first a hint of emotion in his voice, and then it was unmistakable: Fr. Gary was on the verge of tears.
“You know,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time. But today is the first time that I’ve ever known someone in hospice to come to Mass. I mentioned John earlier, and…he’s here.” He pointed to the back of the chapel. “He’s not in his usual pew, but I just noticed that he’s here, right near the statue at the end of the aisle.”
It was one of those moments where everyone turned to look at the same time. 500 heads turning in unison to see that John was indeed at the back of the church. He was sitting in a wheelchair, his wife standing next to him.
As we filed out of the chapel, I made my way over to John and Evie. It’s exceptionally rare to be able to say goodbye to someone when you know it’s the last time you’ll get to say anything to them. As I said, just 30 minutes before this, I was under the mindset that the next time I saw John would be at his funeral. I wasn’t going to miss the chance to say goodbye.
I wish I had some words of strength, wisdom, or kindness to share, but as I reached John and Evie, I broke down in tears. I couldn’t string together more than a word or two, so I simply clasped John’s shoulder and shook his hand, then hugged Evie at least 6 times in a row. There were streams of people walking by, many of them wanting to talk to John, so I moved on.
As I walked to my car, I reflected upon the experience. Beyond the gratitude I felt for being able to say goodbye to John and the sense of loss, I think this is what got to me: In all his pain and weakness, the end of his life weeks, days, or even hours away, John knew what he wanted: He wanted to go to his church. It’s a driving force in his life, a huge passion of his, and in the face of death, he followed his heart there with his wife by his side.
This isn’t about church or religion, not specifically. We all have different things that drive us. But there are usually only a few passions–maybe one or two–that we’re willing to fight for throughout our lives, even when it would be a heck of a lot easier to stay in bed. Those are the special ones.
I’m so glad John found his passion and pursued it to the end. It’s a remarkable example of fortitude. I hope the same for you.