Question Fourteen

How to be with a dying man?

That’s a question.

We had a new minister come to our Lutheran church when I was a kid, and I remember his first meeting with our youth group.  He was half-sitting on a table up front, and we noticed he had a pronounced limp in his gait when he walked.  I recall the first question he asked us.  "Do you notice anything different about me?"  There was silence for a while, and some mild fidgeting among us, and then I replied, "You've got a bad leg."  He went on to explain that he had contracted polio as a boy, and his leg was part of the fallout.  He kindly wanted that fact to be out there for us, and now we could move on.  It was a very small but profound teaching moment for me.  It set me to thinking — Why are we afraid to ask the obvious, when often the person being asked has already experienced the depths of the question?

Who are we and what is the nature of our “presence” when we are, or one day will be with a dying person?  Do we set the parameters of the moment, or does that dying woman or man or child?  Why is there, for us the visitor, that anxiety of the visit, so much so that if possible we will avoid the encounter entirely?  We are both strangely drawn to and repelled by the circumstances, and by the silence and the search for words.  Why do we sense it to be a holy moment and yet one so full of fear, as we imagine we have nothing to bring, and may even feel as an intruder?  Who are we in those minutes, extracted from the manageable routines of our daily lives only to be inserted into a place where all management fails?  Is it about the dying person, and also very much about ourselves?

What will we do?  Perhaps more appropriately, what will we be?  What will we bring, or what will we receive?  Will we rush to fill the space with that unique burden of small-talk — that groping awkwardness that presses in on each chest?  We search for air.  And what does it reveal about a man that he must talk this very instant?  What is it about men who never shut up?  What are they afraid of?  I wonder if it is a gift that we don’t say a damn thing.  Will we let a dying man speak, or might we simply sit alongside with tubes and trays when the room is wordless?  Perhaps then the questions emerge.  Simple and candid, with resignation or hope, touching unknowns, even offered by the one who is navigating what we all some day must.

I think of handshakes I’ve received over the years.  Some of the dead fish type.  But the finest are those full-grip, firm and lingering, the other hand cupping the tricep, with a bit of eye contact and turn of the mouth.  The handshake that says all that need be said.  No words suffice.  A full and complete moment.  Here I am.  And I love that a man’s handshake used to be his word.  Oh, for those days.  Human contact and presence that no legal document or infusion pump can touch.

How to be with a dying man?