It’s late afternoon, nightfall in early December. An hour ago, guided by the soft glow of holiday lights, we accompanied Malcolm’s body outside through the sharp air, from the shimmering darkness of Joseph’s House to the funeral home van. This is what we do at Joseph’s House. We open our hearts and respectfully go the distance with every person who lives and dies here.
For days before he died, Malcolm had prayed without ceasing. His prayer, shouted loud and often, was to be forgiven for his sins and for strength to meet his Maker clean and sober. In the past, he had purchased on the street the same drugs now prescribed to him for pain. He didn’t want them. He would endure the pain. He wanted to be worthy of meeting his Lord as he believed the Lord wanted for him to be – drug-free when he crossed over into heaven. Malcolm suffered courageously. He didn’t seem afraid. He was in his right mind.
And still it took courage to be worthy of Malcolm and support his decision. It was painful to stay with him as he died the way he wanted to. Our hearts ached, listening to his moans and overhearing his prayers – shouted so God could not fail to hear him. He did not sleep. When I took a turn keeping vigil at his bedside, I sometimes prayed as much for myself as for Malcolm. I was helpless to ease his suffering and the helplessness hurt. Yet when I could soften to what hurt in me, I became less distant and more able to just be with him. We fell in step with each other in a wordless kind of way. He seemed to rest a little and I did too. It felt as though a kind Presence was with us. When Malcolm’s spirit left his body, he sighed a long sigh and the furrows smoothed from his brow. He was home.
Malcolm caused all of us at Joseph’s House to think and talk deeply about suffering and courage and love.
Gabriel, one of our nurses, Nigerian by birth, called our attention to the courage of West Africans who are dying of the Ebola virus. “Imagine their fear that someone who cares for them will get the disease too,” he said. “And those who do care for the sick know they really might fall ill. Yet they care courageously and are willing to suffer with other human beings!”
Accompanying men and women who are dying at Joseph’s House does not call forth such fear as this. How blessed we are!
When Malcolm prayed, we held hands with him. He could read our faces because we didn’t wear masks. Caring for him, none of us feared contagion. When Malcolm died we bathed and blessed his body with scented water and oil. All the way to the van, we accompanied his body with appreciation and respect, no fear. Perhaps this was a kind of Advent gift.
There is no denying the darkness. From it came Malcolm’s deep cry. Within the darkness there was longing and courageous waiting, awe and hope. And when we could come to deeper stillness inside, we felt the mystery of the breath. We found alignment sometimes, with our brother’s breath and with the breath of God as each of us understands God. Something shifted. For a moment we were one in the radiant darkness.
Very soon this darkness will give way to the bright lights of Christmas. We celebrate Christmas in a wonderful way at Joseph’s House too. But here in the velvet dark of this early winter evening, on the day that Malcolm died, strengthened by knowing him, and inspired by courageous, compassionate West African men and women, I give thanks for all the friends of Joseph’s House.
Thankful for the quietness and passion, for the steadiness and generosity of our friends’ love for Joseph’s House. Thankful for those who pray for us. Thankful for the financial gifts we receive. Without our friends and supporters, Malcolm would have died so differently. With them, with us, he met his Maker as he prayed he would. Because of all who make our life together possible, Joseph’s House is alive and present in God’s shimmering darkness.