This is the fifth installment of this series by Patrick Riecke, director, Chaplaincy and Volunteer Services. Patrick is exploring the five people who most influenced his career.
I am a checklist kind of guy. I know, “Ugh!”
I like to have a to-do list. If I don’t have a list, I make one. Even on Saturdays. And Sundays. Yes, I am that much fun. It’s really a bit of a sickness. (Admitting you have problem is the first step to recovery, right? Right?)
Several years ago a good friend asked me if I would have lunch with her stepdad. He was bad with cancer. In fact, he had already almost died once — more about that in a minute. It was especially hard because he was a young man at the time. He hadn’t even started to get mailers from AARP.
As a pastor, I get requests like this occasionally — requests to talk with people facing death or other life-altering situations. And, while extremely meaningful, they can be intimidating. I regularly get the feeling that the person sitting across from me wants me to make sense of age-old questions like, “Is there life after death?” or “Why am I suffering?” or, the most difficult question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Fortunately for me, Tony just wanted to talk. He wanted to tell me stories. Stories of things he had thought, felt, realized and seen through his cancer battle. He told me one story that I want to tell you before I go on. His family said it was OK to share his special experience.
Coming out of a cancer surgery that had been very difficult, he had a vision.
In the vision he was flying. He was soaring through the bluest sky over a beautiful paradise.
“The colors…” he looked off over my shoulder, as though he was having the vision all over again.
“They were so…” and he paused because he wanted the next word to sum up his entire vision. “Vivid.”
“I didn’t want to come back. I wanted to stay in that place. And when I came to after the surgery, I was mad. I wanted to go back.”
It was at this moment that I realized he was helping me more than I was helping him (that continued to be the case).
Tony and I met several more times, and he told me that he shared my “to-do list” sickness. He had accomplished a lot, and was always moving. “Now, though, I don’t just do things to get them done. Now I do them to experience them. To slow down. To savor. To enjoy.” He was teaching me what would later become the teachings I shared in my posts on The Secret to Happiness. (Cont. here)
I confessed to Tony that I was reading a particular book at the time just to finish the book. In light of what he was telling me, I realized how stupid that was. You ought to read a book to read it, not to finish it. As though I get some kind of points for finishing that task.
As we got to the parking lot that day, Tony, in his suit with a blue tie, gave me a little grin again as we parted ways. “Now go finish that book.”
(I haven’t finished a book since then. Instead, I have read every one.)
Fast forward a few months and Tony was homebound. He and his wife lived in my neighborhood, so I stopped by sometimes. Eventually, he went on Hospice care.
One day, I came over and Tony was no longer himself. The cancer was getting the best of him and he was having a hard time making sense of the world around him.
His family stepped out of his room while I stayed with him at his bedside. I read to him about the New Heaven and the New Earth. About how there would no longer be any pain. No more sickness. No more tears. About how God writes our names in his book.
In his struggle for being awake and aware, he said the only words he could muster.
“I like that book … I like that book … I like that book.”
I remembered our conversation in Pizza Hut months before when his eyes sparkled as he joked with me about finishing my book.
As I helped him drink a cup of soda, I held the straw to his lips.
What happened next, I cannot explain. But, before my eyes, Tony’s face became the face of Christ.
Not “feed-the-five-thousand” or “walk-on-the-water” Jesus, but “dying-on-the-cross-struggling-to-communicate” Jesus.
And I was the one offering him a drink.
Not long after that, I walked into the room where Tony would die just a few hours later. When I walked in he said my name, “Patrick.”
I will never forget that moment or that day.
I didn’t know it, but there would be a lot more times in the future that I would be at a person’s bedside at the time of death. That I would, in fact, lead a team of people who do this work daily.
But Tony was my teacher. He taught me how to enjoy.
He taught me how to savor.
He taught me that every person is Jesus.
That when we look at the dying person in the bed, that we can see the face of God every time.
Tony taught me how to read a book — one page at a time.
Read the previous post in this series, The influence of Gladys.