A Facebook friend, Gregory Tillett, posted a story that I wanted to share. The following words are his and are posted with his permission. –David
I admit that I have a distinctly perverted sense of humour, but I was challenged to suppress it recently when I had to choose between hysterical laughter, or vomiting, or flying into a rage.
The young man was dying. He was connected to an array of medical devices, and being given every possible treatment (contrary to his very clear and explicit instructions) that might keep him barely alive for as long as possible.
His family, who clearly believed that his impending death was nothing to do with him, but entirely a matter for them, had finally resolved a massive conflict by bringing together a “non-denominational grief minister” who also described herself as a “death midwife” (his mother’s choice) and an Orthodox Priest (his father’s choice). Oh, and me! I was the choice of the young man’s girlfriend (expressed to her by him). Her role was, of course, problematic. They had been living together (“in sin”?) for four years or more, but were not married. So, as the young man’s parents repeatedly declared, she had no “rights”. Alas, he had also never prepared a Will or any enduring Powers of Attorney, so, legally, she was something of a “stranger”.
The “death midwife” rambled on about nothing in particular. The Orthodox Priest, in obviously grave discomfort and very much out of his depth, recited set prayers and talked about the serious dangers of dying without confession and absolution, and the probable risks of hell-fire and damnation. Someone, finally, suggested that I might offer a prayer, which I did, noting that the young man seemed to be smiling at me as I did so.
Thus the anticipatory mourners departed. While I was waiting for the others to depart, the girlfriend asked me if I would go back into the young man’s room.
As I bent over to listen to him, he said: “Do I have put up with all this crap?” It took me a while to understand what he was saying. When I assured him that he didn’t have to “put up with anything”, he said: “You know, the only thing that I really want is to have a beer and a cigarette with [he named his girlfriend] in the fresh air.” He seemed gratefully amused when I laughed. “I’ll see what I can do”, I said.
I found the oldest female nurse I could. Long experience has taught me that older women are almost always more sympathetic and more pastorally practical than men. I told her what the young man wanted. She remained completely silent. I asked her: “Would a beer and a cigarette in the fresh air make any difference to his condition?” Her expression did not change. “Wait here,” she said. It was not a request. She returned in a few minutes with a young doctor who turned out to be an oncologist, and, silently, ushered us both into an empty room and closed the door. She had obviously told the young doctor about my question. He assured me that the young man was close to death, and neither beer nor cigarettes, nor fresh air, could have the slightest effect on that. “But,” said the nurse (showing not the slightest emotion), “it would be completely against the rules and the law for alcohol or cigarettes to be brought into the hospital, let alone consumed here.”
I knew instinctively that I had to remain silent. She thanked the doctor and, giving me a knowing smile, he departed. “Perhaps,” the nurse said, “Mr X might like to sit for a brief time on the balcony where he could see the outside world and smell the fresh air. That can probably be arranged in, say, half an hour….in case there’s anything you need to do in the meanwhile.” She departed.
The girlfriend offered to “go shopping”, but obviously did not want to leave her partner. I suspect that the man in the nearby bottle shop was not accustomed to selling beer, cigarettes and a lighter to men in Priest’s robes, but he managed to be completely professional, even to asking: “Would you prefer a bag without our logo on it?”
Two older wardsmen appeared, and gently moved the young man in his bed out onto the balcony, supervised by the nurse. “You will obviously need privacy, Father” she said. “I’ll place a notice on the door so that no-one will come in without consulting me first.” She left.
The sun was shining, the air was fresh – well, a little polluted by cigarette smoke and the slight fragrance of beer. The young couple held hands, drank what was to be their last beer together, and smoked their last cigarette. I went back inside the room to leave them alone.
The nurse reappeared. “Have you finished hearing his Confession, Father?” she asked quite loudly, presumably for the benefit of any staff outside the room. The wardsmen returned and the room was returned to its normal order. As I was leaving, the young woman handed me the bag (with no logo) containing a few cans of beer and the pack of cigarettes. “You keep it,” I said. She looked at me with tears in her eyes: “For later, when….” she said. I bent down to say goodbye to the young man, and to bless him. It took me some time to understand what he was saying. “You do……pretty…cool….last rites…Father.” He smiled. And so did I.
Going down in the elevator, two young nurses were talking, obviously about the older nurse who had assisted me. “Hard-faced bitch,” one said. “Yeah,” said the other, “you couldn’t expect human feeling from her.” I smiled again. The older nurse not only did not practice her righteousness in front of others to be seen by them [Matthew 6:1], but carefully concealed it by giving the appearance of being hard-hearted. When, on another day, I attempted to thank her for her kindness, she seemed positively indignant: “I was only doing my job, Father.” A “job”, of course, which she did not define by the bureaucratic rules of the hospital, and which was largely possible because of the image of a tyrant she projected.
The young man died early the following morning.
I often have occasion to give thanks for the “parish” I have been given. My parishioners are those who have been thrown out of, forced out of, alienated from, relegated to second-class status in, or made to feel unwelcome in any conventional parish. They’re the people who may need “really cool Last Rites” involving beer and cigarettes, fresh air and sunshine, and the comforting hand of someone they love but with whom they are not in a “legitimate” relationship.
That right there— That is what it should mean to be the church. We are a people of second-class status, alienated and sinful, unwelcome, but made into a family—the body of Christ—to bring a little life into those spaces where death continues to reign, even if only for a few moments. –David