I have been called to numerous death beds, and I would like to say I have learned many things about the dignity of Christian death, but I cannot say so. Death is an indignity of the first order; that’s all I know.
My feelings are complicated by an acute sense of inadequacy for the occasion. Something noble and fearless should arise to match the solemnity of the moment, but rarely does. There is little telling pastors what to do at deathbeds beyond prayer book rubrics, nothing to instruct us on how to be an authentic pastoral presence. I am struck by the paucity of the verbal repertoire I possess. I rely on the prayer book, old words that are not my own, wondering always if they are enough. In Freedom for Ministry Richard Neuhaus spoke of the “seeming absurdity” of ministry and the clarity of his description never seems keener than when I confront the deathbed of a parishioner.
There are some death scenes I remember well, and some I remember only too well —because something remarkable happened, because the individual had become a friend, or because by one of those mere tricks of memory it lingers still sharp. They were gentle or painfully excruciating, or humorous and, as must be with death, always chastening.
• Sam was an electrical and mechanical engineer. He also had one of the best voices I’ve heard, and he sang at my twentieth anniversary of ordination. In his last day of life with pancreatic cancer he disassembled the blood oxygen sensor that was attached to his index finger. He started fussing with it in the morning, setting off alarms at the nurses’ station. They came in and tried to set things straight, but he’d be back at it again shortly. They finally gave up and just let him alone. He stopped responding to questions, but he kept at that sensor, eyes closed, until he had the thing in pieces arrayed on his chest, parts sorted in careful order. “Dad,” his daughter asked, “why did you do that?” “I wanted to see how it fit together,” were his last words. Had he lived another day, I am still convinced, he might have put the thing back together.
• After completing the Lord’s Prayer I leaned over, took Margaret’s hand, and spoke gently, “Remember, Jesus knows you and whatever happens, he is with you always.” A look of irritation crossed her face and she opened her eyes and snapped at me, “I already know that.” Then her expression softened a bit, and with a small smile she said, “But thank you for saying it anyway,” as she patted my hand. I should have stopped with the prayer.
• The woman was ninety-four. Suddenly she awakened and announced, “We have to change our teaching! There’s not supposed to be any pain in heaven!” “Grandma,” her granddaughter told her, “you’re not in heaven yet; you’re still here with us.” “Oh,” the old woman said, “then it’s all right.”
• Harold was unassuming, quiet, an altogether nice man, with a deep sense of humor. His wife awakened me about midnight with a phone call; they had taken him to the hospital. I drove over and chatted briefly with him, said a prayer with the family, and after the doctor said Harold seemed stabilized for the night, went home. His wife called again, about three in the morning to say they didn’t think he’d live through the night.
When I arrived, Harold was propped upright to ease his breathing. He wasn’t speaking, eyes closed. Then Harold opened his eyes, looked for his wife, and winked at her broadly. Winked? Yes, then he closed his eyes, one breath, never another, and drifted into death. “Where the hell did that come from?” I unintentionally wondered aloud. “I don’t know,” his widow said, “but he was thinking of me, wasn’t he.” Then she wept and even laughed, a little.
• Lucille died of breast cancer. Her last coherent words were the sursum corda of Holy Communion, repeated steadily for a few moments until she lost final consciousness.
• George was the consummate small appliance hobbyist. He could fix anything and did, just for the fun of doing it. Thirty years before he bought his wife an anniversary “present,” a twenty-five cent junk toaster from a flea market. He fixed it, and his wife had used it ever since. “Revenge,” I think I heard her say. He had three, four good years in remission from leukemia, and then a stomach cancer took him within a year.
I really came to love the guy and, I have to say, he gave every indication the feeling was returned. It was terribly painful watching this good man die. As cancer combined with radiation treatments destroyed his digestive tract, McDonald’s was running an advertizing blitz for McRibs. The commercials drove him nuts. His digestive track was crap but his appetite was intact. George promised he’d take me out for an order. We both knew otherwise; all he could take were ice chips. A few days before his death he took some ice chips, divided them in two paper cups, and gave me one. “We’ll have to pretend these are ribs.”
I was there the night he died, moistening his mouth with a swab. And I was angry, mostly because his family didn’t know to keep his mouth moist. They could see, couldn’t they, how badly the oxygen dried his mouth and how desperately he sucked on the swap? What was wrong with them? After he died, his daughter asked me to say a prayer. I did not want to pray for them, these people who wouldn’t keep George’s mouth wet. So I prayed for George, and I thanked God I had known him.
I had quit smoking six months before and driving home at three a.m., I fished in the glove compartment and found an old cigarette, as I had hoped. It was awful and I tossed it. Thinking about it through the years it would have been more fitting had I dropped by a twenty-four hour McDonald’s for the ribs, but I instead stopped for a fresh pack of cigarettes.
I still haven’t learned how to meet death with just the right word or gesture. Then again, could it be otherwise? We were not made for death, and death was not made for us. St. Francis would have us sing in praise of that “most kind and gentle death” but most of us, yet in the vigor of our years, gladly would settle for no death of any sort. It will come, nonetheless. And while anointing the head of the dying, as the prayer book bids, I will pray in words not my own, “Surrounded by angels and triumphant saints, may Christ come to meet you as you go forth from this life.”
Russell E. Saltzman is the development pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, a mission parish of the North American Lutheran Church in Gothenburg, Nebraska. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.