Thursday, September 06, 2007

A Reality Check

I learned a long time ago that it is next to impossible to divorce my "professional" life from my personal life. The truth of the matter is that if I am not an authentic person as a pastor, no one should ever consider me a "professional." My faith life, my family life and my work life are all so tightly woven together that they form the totality of who I am. I would hasten to add that being "professional" is important to me, as well, so I do not, for example, disclose confidentialities, and I pursue continuing education and all the rest. I'm simply saying that when someone sees me in my vocational work place, I hope they see the same person they would see when I am home or when I am relaxing or enjoying the life God has given me. Authenticity is my first concern.

So, it would not surprise you today that I experienced a personal reality check while engaging in a professional responsibility. One of our octogenarians has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he asked if I would accompany him today for his admission to an area nursing home. He has three children, one across the county, one who lives in the state south of us and a third who lives in the metro area (still a couple of hours away). His son will be with him tomorrow to discuss details, but I had the privilege of accompanying my elderly friend today as he begins his journey into the nursing home experience.

My friend is a gentle, kind man who has spent his life serving others. I learned today that he earned a Bachelor of Science in the late 1940s but his working life was largely "blue collar." He spent the last years of his working life as a United States mail carrier and in his retirement has been active in the church in caring for others. He is really a delightful guy.

And he is dying of terminal cancer.

I was reminded of the solemnity of his diagnosis today as I sat with him and the nursing home social worker. He reviewed a barrage of paperwork and answered questions regarding his upcoming care experience and his preferences. From questions about financial arrangements (did you realize that it costs nearly $4,000 a month to reside in a nursing home facility?) to minute details about life functioning ("Do you often stay up past 9:00 PM? Do you awaken during the night to use the bathroom? Would you characterize your bowel movements as irregular?") I bore mute witness to the beginning of a man's final days.

The most sobering questions were those regarding health directives: to be resuscitated if a heart attack occurs? to be intubated? to receive IV treatment if dehydrated? to receive comfort care or full medical attention?

I should clarify that these were sobering questions for me to witness, but that my good-natured friend answered them with candor, grace and dignity. "Nah," he said, "I've lived [80+] years, and I've had a good life. When the time comes let the old cat die," a knowing smile upon his face. "Who knows? I may recover and graduate from hospice care." And then, after a pause, "but I doubt it."

These are holy moments in the life of any person, even for a pastor like myself who has for more than twenty years walked through difficult valleys with many people. I have listened to numerous life accounts, witnessed lingering and painful deaths, rejoiced when an enfeebled, physically spent individual is able to transition into the arms of God. But each time is unique and special. There are no "standard" deaths, there is no routine, each of these dear people contributes another layer of meaning and understanding to my life.

And so, while I am professionally a capable caregiver and spiritual guide, personally I am always humbled by the role God has given me in the lives of others. The reality check I received today is the reminder, again, that I am also mortal. The day will come when I will be sitting in a small room with a care professional deciding how my remaining weeks or months of life will be lived. One day I will be old, and the minor aches and pains I complain about now as a 43-year-old man will no longer be a prime concern. I will, instead, be deciding how to say goodbye to my children and wondering whether I have given them a legacy broad enough to justify my years as their father.

I only hope I can face my mortality with the same degree of honesty, grace and dignity that I have witnessed today.

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