by Lanita Bradley Boyd
“It’s time to call in hospice,” the doctor says, and family prayers change. Prayers for healing change to prayers for a pain-free, peaceful ending. The family may gather around the patient even more than before, treasuring each moment together.
But what about the patient? If you are the person for whom the death knell has tolled, what would you do with your remaining time on earth? A popular movie, The Bucket List, calls attention to the idea of making a list of things you’d like to do before you die. I would like to share some ways in which a Christian’s “bucket list” might differ from that of the rest of the world.
Recently I lost two people who were close to me: my friend and mentor Ruth, age 77, and my former fifth-grade student Marcus, age 27, who grew up in our congregation. Each gave those around them a model of how Christians can face death graciously and gracefully.
Ruth fought colon cancer for six years, with her husband Bob as her greatest champion and attendant. Bob’s limited vision kept him from driving, and Ruth continued to drive them everywhere until her last five months. When they had exhausted all efforts to curtail the cancer, her oncologist said, “We must call in hospice.”
Hospice Changes Everything
“Hospice?” Bob echoed. “Are we talking weeks or months?”
“Weeks,” was his answer. Ruth told me her thoughts at that moment were simply that it was great to have some weeks to prepare rather than to drop dead suddenly as a friend had done the previous month. Ruth’s dying was as practical, realistic, and God-centered as her life had been.
Here is what she wrote shortly after hearing the news:
I have time to hug and be hugged, to find and to throw away. My greatest fear is that all the vitamins and food supplements that Bob continuously pours down me will make me too hard to do in—and I will wear out my support. ‘Oh, bother!’ as Winnie the Pooh says.
Anyway, I love God, I love Jesus, I love the church, I love the saints, I love the assembly. I love the Bible, especially Philippians. I love nature, I love children, I love family. I love a good story. I love to laugh. Other than a combative nature, I confess no other sins.
In the four months that she lived after hospice was called, Ruth was her usual busy self. This time her business was carried on from a recliner by phone conversations and personal visits. One day at church, for she attended until her last three weeks, I told her I planned to visit some time that week.
“Let me think,” she answered. “I have people coming other days. You need to come on Tuesday afternoon and we’ll be able to talk.”
More than a Chat
At that point I did not know that she was in the process of sharing her accumulated wisdom by giving assignments to those left behind. On the day of our visit the hospice chaplain dropped in as I arrived. She listened intently to Ruth’s instructions. “You are the most inspiring person I’ve ever visited!” she said. “I don’t have to reassure you; you are inspiring to me.”
First, Ruth went through a notebook in which she jotted down items to remember from each person’s visit. As she flipped through the pages, she recounted her visitors and what they’d discussed.
“Norma Jean,” she said. “I asked her what was missing in her life. She hasn’t been back in the Lord for very long, and I was interested in hearing what she would say—if it would be something spiritual. She immediately said she felt she had very little Bible knowledge but didn’t know where to start on her own. After she left, I called Marcia and told her she needed to start studying the Bible with Norma Jean. I think it’s working out pretty well for them.”
She talked about others who had come, offering spiritual food, and I could see that instead she had shared a banquet with them. She was looking forward to Heaven and to seeing Jesus after serving him faithfully for a lifetime. She talked about how her faith had supported her in various circumstances.
Sharing Favorite Verses
The chaplain asked what her favorite Bible passage was. First, she said she loved anything from Philippians and seemed to be groping for a specific verse. I knew that either the meds or the cancer had badly affected her memory, so I tried to help.
“Years ago, you said your favorite verse was from Matthew—the father’s response when Jesus asked the father of the sick son if he believed.”
Before I could continue, her eyes lit up and she said, “Oh, yes! ‘I believe. Help thou my unbelief.’ So often I felt that way myself.” She sighed and leaned back, obviously fatigued by the effort.
But in a moment she continued, “I want you to look after Fay. She is so easily flustered and sometimes it’s hard to know what she means to say. But she’s so good and her heart is open to Jesus. She and I have spent so much time together the last 12 years that I know she will be lonely.
“Of course, she’ll still be driving Bob around! I know that will keep her busy.” And she laughed, no doubt thinking of all the errands she’d run with Bob as he repaired people’s cars, delivered food to needy families, or went to hospitals to sit with families during a loved one’s surgery. The last few weeks she’d depended on Fay to take Bob the few places he was willing to go without her.
Leaving a Legacy
“I talked to Laura about this,” she continued, looking at her notebook, “but I want you to be aware of it also. Our children are not learning enough Bible these days! They lack knowledge of basic stories. Now I know,” she said, holding up a hand as though to stop me from protesting, “that they should be taught the Bible stories at home, but they aren’t getting it there. Somehow we failed these young parents. They just don’t put the importance on family devotions and family Bible study that you and I did, and their children suffer for it.
“I especially am concerned about Vacation Bible School. For years we had centers where we acted out Bible stories that really made them come alive for the children. Lately it’s all been cultural information and daily life in Bible times and such and we’re leaving out the stories, the heart of how children relate to the Bible.”
Ruth wanted to answer her own phone. She got a couple of calls during the time we talked and she promised each person that she would call back. Immediately she wrote the name and number in her notebook so she wouldn’t forget.
Ruth helped her family plan her memorial service, which was attended by hundreds of people she had influenced over her 39 years as an elder’s wife, friend, and relative. But her real memorial was in the lives she touched during her final four months of life. The joyous songs she chose were great reminders, such as “In Christ Alone” and “Blessed Be Your Name.”
The Young Die, Too
At the other end of the age spectrum was Marcus, age 27, who died in a bicycle accident in New York City. While he had no prior warning of his death, he nonetheless was prepared. He had taken out a life insurance policy that helped his wife reduce their college indebtedness significantly. And he had invested in the youth of Harlem.
Having worked at Camp Shiloh, an upstate New York church camp for underprivileged children from the inner city, he followed up by moving to New York after he finished his graduate degree in social work. Marcus met weekly with the teens he was mentoring and called or sent text messages to each of them several times a week.
Even in high school he had worked to ease the lives of the homeless, delivering essential items such as warm socks. In college, when he went to a fast food restaurant to eat, he would also buy a bag of carryout hamburgers and drop them off where several homeless people lived. Totally different cities, but the same heart for the poor and downtrodden.
From Cincinnati to Nashville to New York, Marcus left a legacy of caring that will live far beyond his 27 years. Both children and adults have been moved to greater compassion by knowing about his life.
With today’s medical advancements we are often alerted to impending death. Sometimes, however, death comes suddenly and unexpectedly. In either case, we can prepare for death—and eternal life—by living to help and inspire others.
Lanita B. Boyd is a freelance writer in Fort Thomas, Kentucky.
Waiting to Die
The recently released film Of Gods and Men tells the true story of a group of monks who faced the prospect of death.
The incident happened in Algeria in 1996. The film explores the relationship the monks had with the Muslims who lived in their community. They decided to stay in the country, rather than flee, when terrorist violence approached: “We were called to live here, in this country, with this people, who are also afraid,” said one monk.
The movie looks at the men’s love of God and people and explores their very real human fears of death and also their very real faith in an eternity with Jesus.
Christianity Today provides an excellent review of the film online:
The reviewer, Katelyn Beaty, notes specific reasons for the movie’s rating. Here is a portion of her review: “Of Gods and Men is rated PG-13 for a momentary scene of startling wartime violence, some disturbing images, and brief language.”