Deacons are often called upon to be first responders for spiritual reasons. Sometimes a failing marriage, trouble with a teenager, or more serious things that involve addiction and depression might result in a call to a deacon. Ultimately, ministry to those who face death is part of our job description.
I can remember years ago visiting with my first person that I journeyed with long before I was ever ordained. That woman taught me many things as her life slowly ebbed away ... some I knew I was learning at the time, and others, I figured out later. She teaches me still when I think about it.
This morning was the second day in a row that I got a call from a friend of ours and a fellow parishioner at St. Albert the Great Parish. I call her "St. Elaine" all the time, because she lives more naturally the ministry that I often sadly attempt. Elaine's Dad, Fern, is dying in her home.
Every time I leave home to head out to hospice to visit someone, my wife looks at me as if I was crazy. Not because I'm going, but because I'm excited to go and look forward to those visits.
Being with the dying is to be with Jesus. Sometimes people are lucid, sometimes not, but always I feel the Lord's presence in the room. Call me crazy, but I like hanging out with Jesus and so I want to be where He is. My head is clear, things always seem so simple, I hear the birds outside, I see the sun shining through the window, and I know everything is going to be all right ... even when it's not.
Often, the most important person in the room is not the person dying, but rather the living who are terrified, wracked with grief, and just don't know what to do. As death approaches, there are whispers, tears, quiet conversations outside the room, tempered laughter, and a lot of adjusting of pillows, blankets, and the nurse being called.
Day to day, the person looks less and less like themselves as their birthing process is reversed. Today, I was holding Fern's hand as I read Morning Prayer to him from the breviary, and he changed his grip, grimaced a little, and then settled back down again as the morphine won the fight for the next few minutes.
When he was breathing more regularly again, I felt him grab just my index finger rather than my whole hand. His fingers tightened, and then slowly relaxed over a few minutes' time - just like my kids did with me when they were newborns. It made me smile. Fern is becoming a child once again.
To be honest, you never know what to expect when you enter the room in which a person lay dying. Sometimes they have already passed away; sometimes they are breathing so shallowly that you have to watch their chest for a few minutes to see evidence that they are still alive.
The one thing I can always count on for sure is that Jesus will be there waiting, helping, encouraging, comforting and perfectly present. I get some measure of comfort and relief in that I have nothing to say that will fix or heal the person, or the perfect advice to offer the family. There is great freedom in knowing that you don't know. For deacons, many of us will tell you that the simple path to success is just showing up.