All our times have come
Here, but now they’re gone
Seasons don’t fear the reaper
Nor do the wind, the sun or the rain
(We can be like they are)
I never leave the radio on. I always have to turn all of the accessories off — fan, heat, seat heaters, etc. — before I shut my car down. Wednesday night when I parked the car in the parking garage at the hospital, I left the radio on.
And when I started the car again, those ominous lyrics leapt out at me in the cab of my little VW, the 15 year old daughter of the man we had just visited sitting in the passenger seat. Don’t fear the reaper. If she noticed, she didn’t show it. Amy chatted on without skipping a beat.
Death was on my mind, fresh from seeing the gaunt and uncomfortable figure of a friend in his hospital bed, weak and powerfully depressed from his last round of chemo therapy, facing radiation treatments this next week. Chemo and bone marrow transplants a few months ago had seemingly scared the cancer (leukemia) away, but a few weeks ago the sickness had returned in force. Anyone who has seen the devastation the treatments have on a person knows what it does to a person. My friend looked like a corpse. Worse than the physical trauma, his spirit was in agony. That more than anything was the pain I hated to see.
“Sorry, Steve, I am just not good company right now.”
“It doesn’t matter, Ken. Really I am just glad to see you again.”
That was the honest truth. In some way I felt a bit selfish being there. Ken would be weak, I knew, and not really wanting visitors. If it were me, it would be difficult for me to devote the energy to entertaining a guest. I suppose that is why I only spent 20 minutes or so of the three hours we were at the hospital visiting with Ken. When it became clear that Ken was having a hard time keeping his eyes open, I asked him if he needed to rest. He did. His daughter and I left the room with the promise to be back later on in the evening.
Oddly, the evening was a relaxing evening. Amy is good company, soft spoken but confident, happy to quietly work on a jigsaw puzzle with me in the family lounge down the hall from Ken’s 14th floor room. The view of Chicago from the lounge was breathtaking, especially as the sun began to set and the lights brought the magic of the city out. To the immediate west was the United Center, where the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks play, a brilliant display of each team logo facing us. I like the windows in the tall buildings as their lights come on, Amy told me with awe. In the past months, she has become a hospital veteran, graciously sharing with me the appreciation she had for the place. Her comfort with the place was not what I expected, but maybe I should not have been surprised. Amy has spent a lot of time since last May at Rush hospital.
That Amy was comfortable accepting a ride with me to Chicago to see her dad seemed odd to Miriam, my wife. Originally I was supposed to take Amy and her mother, but her mother had a hair appointment Wednesday night. She asked if I would still take Amy — and I said I would. We have been friends with their family since Amy was a toddler, when my daughter and Amy’s brother started kindergarten together. Quiet Amy has always been friendly with me, especially since I always made an extra effort to tease the talk out of her. Amy is serene and accepting, just like her father, something I appreciate about them both.
The girl has had to learn to accept help from people since her father became sick last year. She is good at it, a gift of sorts, and I think she knows by now that gratitude is a given. I didn’t feel like I was doing her a favor. This was something we were doing together, both of us enjoying the time. That may seem strange to say.
“Is it OK if I go in to see your dad with you?” I asked as I parked my car in the parking garage. I didn’t want to intrude. Besides, this was the first time I would have the chance to see Ken since he collapsed after the high school graduation ceremony for his son’s (and my daughter’s) class last May. If he wasn’t planning on seeing me, he might be embarrassed.
“Of course. Dad really wants to see you.” Amy was very matter of fact.
Ken was asleep when Amy cracked the door open. “Maybe we should let him sleep for a while. He hasn’t been able to sleep lately.” Amy whispered, tiptoed closer to make she he was sleeping soundly, came back and led me down the hall to the family lounge.
“Oh good, no one has touched the puzzle since I was here Sunday.” She pulled two chairs to the table, patted the chair next to her for me to sit, smiled as she immediately began sorting through the puzzle pieces. We would put together quite a bit of that puzzle during the evening visit.
After 45 minutes or so we went back to Ken’s room. Amy wanted to wake him up. He needed to eat. The nurse came in with his dinner after Amy poked her father to wake him up. They went through a lot of the formalities of father and daughter necessary — mail, the schedule for the rest of the week, family news, what was going on at school. Ken was glad to see me, thanked me for bringing Amy, but he was in a lot of pain. It was a lot of effort to talk. Then came time for him to use the toilet (and he couldn’t get out of bed), a lot of moments of pain. Ken told me how he felt, how tender his mouth and throat were, something real obvious as he took two bites of mashed potatoes and stopped. There came a point where his tailbone was in a spot on the bed where it was excruciating to him, so I found a nurse to get another pillow for him and helped him get in a better position.
And then it came time to let him rest. Amy and I went back to her puzzle. She laughed as I joined in the trivia game with three women who were in the lounge with us. More puzzle.
“Why don’t you go see if your dad is awake? I’ll stay here this time. He needs to see you.” I think she was grateful for that offer, went down to see him, came back 20 minutes later for me. Ken wanted to pray with me before Amy and I left for the evening.
I prayed with them, maybe the only time I was truly uncomfortable. Praying with a friend isn’t bad at all. Praying with a sick friend isn’t as easy. I was suddenly very self conscious — aware of how inadequate I felt, sorry that my relationship with God right now isn’t all that good. I looked at my sick friend, his hand cold in mine, bony and fragile in my grasp. The thought of my own mortality selfishly came to mind. My prayer felt as weak as the hand I held.
God remind me that you are in control of each moment. Be with Ken, bring him relief and healing. Bring your joy to him even during this time.
Not very good. Short. There is a reason why I will never be a pastor again.
Amy hugged her father as he sobbed, his emotional agony so evident. We walked away with a good bye. Amy was unfazed. I was amazed.
And then the words came out of the radio.
Don’t fear the reaper…..