It was perhaps six years ago that I found myself at the hospital. It was, to be fair, a nice hospital, as hospitals go. I didn’t have clergy credentials at this one – my people almost always ended up at the much less nice county hospital. But still, here I was – well, me and my buddy Shelden. He was good as gold, Sheldon was, but his missing teeth and unkempt afro garnered some stares from folks in the lobby.
Shelden had come to me earlier that day and told me that his brother was in the hospital with lung cancer. And then he asked if I would go with him to see his brother.
I said that of course I would, but that I didn’t even know he had a brother. Sheldon said something about his own brother had acted like he didn’t have a brother. I didn’t push it. When you don’t have a home, sometimes family dynamics get complicated.
The first clue that something was wrong was at the front desk when Shelden asked for his brother’s room number. The receptionist looked at the computer and then picked up the phone. A cryptic exchange happened, then she hung up and said, “You need to go to the nurse’s station on the fourth floor, they will tell you where to go.”
So we go off in search of the elevator. We get lost and wind up on the wrong elevator, and at the wrong nurse’s station. We ask for his brother’s room.
The nurse looks up the name, makes a bit of a face, and then picks up the phone. And that was when I knew this is not going to end well.
She sends us to the other end of the fourth floor, to the correct nurse’s station. Shelden starts that way, while I linger.
“He has passed, hasn’t he?” I ask the nurse.
She looks at me with sadness and nods, probably violating eight different privacy laws.
I take a huge breath and then hustle down the hallway to catch up with Shelden, who is shuffling along, head down. There are no rules in such a situation, other than to take care of your people. Actually, that is really just a good rule any time. Figuring that it’s better for him to hear this from me than a nurse, I stop him in the hallway and, for probably the 10th time in my life, I told someone who mattered to me that someone who mattered to them is dead.
The hospital staff had been watching us, and when Shelden broke down in the hallway, they were right there with a chair and a wet rag. They assured him his brother had gone easily in his sleep that morning. One, in such a scene that only happens in the South, told him his brother was “with the Lord now.”
Fifteen minutes or so pass, and we’re handed more wet rags and ginger ale and boxes of tissues and Shelden gets hugs from a few nurses. Then he looks at me and says, “Can we get out of this hallway?”
We go to the chapel to sit for a while. That’s the nice thing about hospital chapels – they are almost always empty.
Again – no rules. We sit. He cries, and at his request, I read “some stuff from the Bible.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:37-39
He asked me what I thought that meant. I told him that it meant that there wasn’t a damn thing that could keep God from loving us. He nods.
We sit and time passes. A few more tears. Then he is ready to go. It’s almost dark as we walk to the car. I ask him where I should take him. He asks to be dropped downtown, where he can hang out until he finds out if he has a bed for the night at the shelter.
We stop at the big park downtown – the one that had the statue of an acorn in it – and we get out, the wind whipping at our cheeks. It’s not bitter cold yet, but it’s down in the fall and the wind makes it a little uncomfortable. I hugged him and told him I loved him, and that I want him to come by my office tomorrow and we will see what needs to be done about the arrangements.
And then he headed toward the bus station, hands in pockets, head hung low, and I got back in my car and drove home to get ready to meet friends for dinner.