The Last Days of June

CC BY-NC, aouniat, Flickr

CC BY-NC, aouniat, Flickr

Bladder cancer meant the last year of my grandmother’s life. That’s how it was. The doctor had told us that it wouldn’t be serious. Somehow this was a friendly cancer that would let Grama live to die of something else, like her diabetes maybe, but he was dead-wrong.

The clock had already been ticking. Christmas that year, six months and four days before the end, the eve of which was her birthday, had been unusually joyful. Grama, with all her grandchildren around, laughed until she cried, until it seemed that delight could be her cure, yet we all saw it coming.

When to Say Nothing

I returned home to live from Indiana in early June of 2006; Grama had not long been in a nursing facility in Martinsville, the next town over. She was my father’s mother and the only grandparent I knew well. I planned my visit to see her as soon as I could unload and place my belongings. I hoped the surprise wouldn’t backfire and be mine to loathe because I wasn’t sure what I might find. I could only wish for my granny healthy as possible, recognizable, and glad to see me.

That day I strode down the corridor past open doors and the oddities and odors that claw at passers-by in such sad places of the physically marooned, hoping that Grama’s room was a refuge. I slowed as I approached the doorway, which was open; I didn’t hear visitors inside. I took a deep breath and entered the room confidently.

It was bright and sterile, spotless in fact, and peaceful, with the sun in full glow like a gift for the moment. My grandmother was lying in the far bed next to the window and neatly tucked under a white blanket. She was looking out the door when I entered. “Michael,” she said plainly, the inflection revealing her surprise and bewilderment.

I’m not sure how I reacted, but I went and kissed her on the forehead. Grama looked herself. She turned her face toward the window and cried; I didn’t try to console her. I wondered then and many times since if she wept for seeing me, her eldest grandson come to see about her or because she knew that it might be my last chance.

Bittersweet is hardest to swallow.

In that moment I had no context to understand how she could be feeling, so I respected those deeply profound seconds by waiting. What is it like to face your own death? To know there will be no more living? The future isn’t scary when it means you’re alive and prospering, but the future is perfectly inconceivable when it means you’re dead. I know what my Christian faith explains about the afterlife, yet a human creature, indeed any living thing, designed to grow and reproduce abhors the thought of death.

Grama knew that she was dying because she was already discussing her final wishes. I recall the few times I heard her exclaim “I thought I was gon’ die!” when in the past she had fought off a bad bug or complications. The comment would always make me hide my laughter and still brings a smile to my face for its superstitious absurdity. But seeing Grama cry, however, was in its own way a door of finality.

Tomorrow?

Grama always assumed my return the next day. She wanted to see her family daily simply because she was there. I suppose that I would want my folks near me too for less grievous reasons. But I didn’t always make it back to Grama daily despite the easy thirty-minute drive. Sometimes it was no reason more than the monotony of the place: watching her sleep, no TV, window watching, book boredom, the nosy roommate.

We all lapsed a time or two, for different reasons, and not because we didn’t care but for the cares that consumed our time. Where there wasn’t work and business matters to tend, there was indifference that often trades substantial things for indulgence and always counts on tomorrow. I’m not sure that brand of tomorrow exists though whether we’re living or dying.

I cringed at the fact that when I could have and maybe should have been with Grama, I was busy doing nothing. Sometimes I was lying around watching TV while she was lying down waiting to die. The self-interest disgusted me. Yet I would think this way of Grama, too. Didn’t she realize that we couldn’t possibly be there all the time? Did her dying lend her more right to need? I hated myself for thinking this way. I’ve learned that human nature is a demanding, self-centered circus of a thing—even when the animals are calling it quits.

“Mirror, Mirror…”

Grama forgave us for missing days but not for leaving her there. She wanted to go home and was belligerent about it. The first day I saw her she wanted me to take her home. I could be Hercules with her hoisted in my arms plucking off every resistance until I laid her down in her own bed. It was that mythical at least.

Conversation became awkward at times. “I can bring you lunch if you’d like,” I would say. “What do you want?” The reply would come like a blow and deadpanned: “I wanna GO HOME.” The most I accomplished for her was to get a new chair in the room to make her more comfortable and allow us to sun on the patio.

There soon came a day when I entered the room and noticed signs of the inevitable peering back at me. Grama was gaunt. The volume in her face was gone, completely, and she appeared skeletal. Her skin had become ashen. Her mind and morale remained but her body had been taken hostage. This alarmed me because it happened quickly, and I’m sure she had no idea of it.

One day she requested a mirror from the nurse to look herself over. I couldn’t know how long it may have been since she had seen herself. The act of something so simple seemed so primitive and animal-like to me watching her do it. Research shows us certain animals, like chimpanzees and elephants, querying themselves this way to demonstrate self-perception. Did Grama recognize the person staring back at her? I expected an exclamatory remark but she said nothing.

The Final Night

A few days from that time we got the call to come because our friend—the cancer—had turned foe and would wait no longer. I walked in the room this time and Grama was but a shell now and clearly in her final hours. She was lying on her right side into the bed railing, her eyes partly open, her mouth twisted.

Death is such an indignity.

Her roommate was a Christian woman and an unfortunate soul for the trials she had endured to this point. She had come to the facility with her husband roommate, in that very room, but he had died beside her; she was given a new roommate who also died there; now it was my grandmother’s turn. The staff moved the lady to another room to give us privacy, but I considered it an act of compassion for her own sanity.

Yet the roommate didn’t leave without first detailing my grandmother’s final night. She spoke as frankly as possible. “That woman drove me crazy!” The way she bellowed the word—CRAAZI!—with a distinctly Southern drawl, I found more embarrassing than insensitive, especially standing there with my mother and the pastor.

She said my grandmother had kept the nurses running all night and screamed for the pain in her body—“callin’ on Jesus and askin’ God to kill ’er.” Her words were chilling. That kind of pain must be hell itself. “But she was a good lady,” she affirmed, noticeably in past tense. She repeated herself then quickened, lifting her hand to God. From her account I figured that my grandmother was lucid into the day until her condition turned sometime that afternoon.

The Shadow of Death

Family and many from the church soon packed the room, presences casting their farewells. I was surprised by the show of people and most remained into the early evening. The night came and with it my decision not to stay to the end, whenever it arrived, but I was sure there was no tomorrow.

It was now the very end of June, less than a month since I had first burst in and kissed Grama’s forehead. This time, my last moment with Grama, I walked to her bedside, took her right hand, and bowed in silent prayer to the God who had numbed her soul against a ravaged body. I offered thanks for all the care and fun and meals and counsel she gave me, along with a request that I might pray and trust as she had, until my very end.

I was told by a family friend of a peculiar moment that happened after I had left when she recited Psalm 23 to my grandmother, which was also Grama’s favorite reading of the Bible. Science suggests that hearing is the last of the senses prior to death, presumably the reason—and a good one—why people venture to talk to the unconscious. Our friend leaned down into Grama’s ear and recited the passage; at the line “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” my grandmother made an audible drone, the only sound any of us heard out of her that day and forever.

The End

Joy and Cheryl, two of my sisters, were determined to keep vigil and not leave Grama to die alone. They were the saddest of anyone having been the closest to Grama of the five siblings. They had taken the most of her care and heed through the years, especially Cheryl who had now managed her affairs for a long time.

It was no surprise to me that they waited. I was sad in theory. I loved my grandmother and my heart had suffered some whenever I sat with her. Still, I saw death as a natural part of life and it no longer rattled me as it did when I was half my age. And I think that’s how you get through it, by remembering that death is personal for us all. Grama had now lived to be eighty-nine years old, well past life expectancy, but one expects old people to die. Young deaths and tragic ones are tougher, for their abruptness and intrusion, but the elderly just fade away. I wondered if I was supposed to feel sadder.

Grama passed at 3:30 in the morning. It was June 29, an otherwise happy day on the family calendar because it is Joy’s birthdate.

Joy reported that Grama sat up suddenly and looked around. My sister jumped out of her seat calling aloud to Grama trying to arrest her attention. Whether Grama saw her cannot be known. When I heard this I thought of the Resurrection account of the dead supposedly returning to the streets of Jerusalem at their pass into the heavens; and out of a cancer-eaten body my grandmother’s spirit lifted, too.

She very well might have caught a glimpse of the room and my sisters, but I imagine that the vista into which she rushed was rapturous. No sooner than she had sat up, she lay down again, and like that she was gone.

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The Day I Got Checkmated

CC BY-NC-ND, Ahd Photography, Flickr

CC BY-NC-ND, Ahd Photography, Flickr

On the day I was betrayed, a wing mate leaving the cafeteria reported to me that he had just overheard some guys speak my full name and boast how badly I was going to “get it” that evening. I immediately went on high alert. I couldn’t be someone’s target, could I? But I also knew that only one person was probably behind it: John Zimmerman.

I could hardly concentrate in classes that day. Stressed by my academic and dorm responsibilities, I also had to represent the Communications department that evening on the ministry broadcast. This new threat, however, terrorized me; it was beyond my control.

I went to dinner promptly at 4:30, as usual, but I returned to my dorm and hid out in my friend’s rooms without indicating my real reason for visiting them. When it came time to ready myself for the taping at 8 o’clock, I shot back to my room, darted in and out of the shower, and headed straight for the studio.

My mind was fully occupied while on-set, but when it was over and I crossed the large parking lot back onto campus, I felt as if I was walking into a treacherous hinterland. This was my Gethsemane. Was I being tracked? I looked all around me. What was this and how did it start? Maybe the guy didn’t hear correctly and I would pass into the morning unscathed…maybe.

Not Tonight, Please

I had about thirty minutes until a counsel session with a new friend. I was happy to finally get the chance to meet and talk with him. He had shared very kind words with me about a brief oration I delivered months earlier and asked to sit down with me. We hadn’t got the chance because our schedules—my chaplain duties and his acting and writing—never permitted.

I needed to be near my room because I couldn’t afford him showing up and me not being there. Yet I refused to be holed up in the room for fear of being accosted. So I sat in the alcove just outside my room instead. I would be able to detect anything suspicious and escape. The hallway was octagonal with a few exits into the stairwell and an open-ended bathroom; and if those options failed, I could dart into my wing mate’s rooms. Solano, my trusted friend and fellow chaplain, stopped by for a few minutes, a comfort to me, then left. I mentioned nothing to him.

John—this night the name of both my new friend and the suspected enemy—arrived and we were happy to see each other, although I was exhausted in every way by now. It was 9:30. I welcomed him in and made sure to lock the door behind me. No sooner than we sat down to talk, the telephone rang. Not another distraction to this meeting, I thought. I debated answering it, but it was just a phone call; so I did: it was…John.

Not Without a Fight

I knew in my heart that the night had just begun. Zim’s voice was too cheerful and suspect and that caused my mind to race. Something felt evil. He made a strange request: look at the door. What? Nothing unordinary…no markings on the large mirror. But as I watched, the doorknob turned. I threw the phone down and lunged my body against the door, but his dorm group exploded into the room.

All these guys—Vasquez, Dingman, Elijah, King, and Michael—were my friends, but tonight they were loyalists. This was war. I fought as I had never done before, amazing myself as I beat back two at a time, wildly slinging some away and knocking others to the ground. At one point I thought I might escape, but Michael, a brawny guy—my roommate for three weeks at the start of the school year—and Zim’s best bud and roomie sent just for the purpose of matching me, clamped down on my legs and immobilized me.

I yelled to John the Good, still seated and calm but probably wondering what the hell was happening, to call Solano but this was futile: they took the phone. I told him to go a floor up and find him, but they threatened him if he moved. None of my wing mates were around, for a change; I was deserted.

Bound and gagged on my own floor, I laid there still in my eveningwear. Then, like a TV moment, Zim, the ringleader, entered the room. It was indeed John, my friend and co-laborer. He entered with his trademark smile laughing with glee at his triumph. I could have expected a signal kiss on the cheek had his men not already captured me.

He took control of the scene as he had done from afar up to this point. His guys stationed themselves at lookout points in the hallway and others secured the elevator. Once it was staged—hallway clear and elevator door open—I was carefully hoisted by my shoulders and roped hands and legs, facedown, and swiftly kidnapped from my room—stolen again from my meeting with the other John who was simply left there alone. I was taken to Zim’s room, my holding cell.

The Mighty Has Fallen!

Once there I was sat in a chair. John approached and slapped me, not with his hand but an insult. As if the camera makeup I wore already wasn’t enough, he used black and red lipstick to mark my face with mockeries and ransom slurs. A paper crown was placed on my head. The group took great delight in all of this—and photos.

While I sat there unable to free myself, I was appalled at the extent of their operation. They added the photos of me, the great Spiritual Life Dorm Director of Upper Michael now branded, helpless, and humbled, to a webpage they had created solely for my capture. The site included a scavenger hunt that would lead my dorm group to where I would be imprisoned for the night—after they had crisscrossed the campus.

Following this brief interlude, I was whisked away yet again to what was my final confinement: the dorm director’s room. Yes, he was part of this scheme, too; it is how Zim had gotten a key to my room. I realized I had been nowhere safe.

Some of my scoundrel captors were already present when I arrived, including Tim, the mastermind. They threw a festive party with cookies, chips, soda, and video games; it was a den of hell and I was the entrée. They told me the entire story, bursting to do so. Tim, my best bud in this group and the one I always playfully taunted, devised it all. A few of my guys and I had ganged up on him in the chapel weeks earlier and so sealed my fate.

The rogues looked into my face for some sign of equal enjoyment. I chose to play the part though, unwilling to add what (tired) enjoyment I was having to their spirited triumph. I spoke only when I addressed them individually to heap as much guilt as I could upon them. Some revealed after the ordeal that they feared they had truly offended me, although they hadn’t. I count that a small victory for me.

The Wait

When the partying ceased, I was taken into the adjacent office and plunked down in an old upholstered chair and secured. Here was the end of the road. Had I waited a little longer, I could have worked my way out of the strap-down, but I was detected and painfully fastened. A call was made to tip off my dorm group—and with that the crew made their apologies and goodbyes and jetted.

It was about midnight now. The earthquake was over and the darkness settled in. My only fear was being left there alone until daybreak. The room was pitch black, except for the sliver of light that entered from beneath the door.

After an indiscriminate amount of time, I heard voices of those I recognized; they were at the elevators and my name was being spoken. Soon the doors opened and closed more actively and each time with more people racing through them until I became hopeful and proud. I detected there was an army of Upper Michael men searching for me, yet racing past me over and over again as they scavenged for me.

One Peek Away

It was near three o’clock when I was found. Everyone had so many questions, but it was all more than I could answer or even wanted to at this point. I was drained, humiliated, and frustrated; and I had a test in the morning, yet I ached for revenge.

I went to my room to decide how I might handle the situation at the moment. I needed to look for Zim right then, but I didn’t want to stir up too much trouble. There were about twenty guys ready for a fight—a real fight; however, they were a battalion that couldn’t discern the humor in it all, which I understood.

I led everyone down to Zim’s room and had them all wait in the stairwell, directly opposite his door. The lights were on; a few of my guys and I knocked at the door. Michael the Brute, awake and probably on guard, answered. If I had possessed a sword, I would have felled him on the spot, but I could only barge my way into the room and ask for John.

He was clearly absent; I was sure he stayed off campus for the night. I wanted to send guys to each of the perpetrator’s rooms and take them by force, but any unorchestrated and raucous event at that hour could have plunged the entire dorm into a riot and drawn in school officials. I drew down my guard instead and left.

What I didn’t know until later was that John was standing behind a wall I chose not to inspect—the only (self-made) partition in the room. Also, what I couldn’t have known was that he had garnered to himself the allegiance of all my fellow senior chaplains and their dorm groups. I had been vanquished, except everyone now feared my retaliation.

(By the way, John the Good and I finally got that meeting…two years later. We shared an entire year as neighbors, our private rooms facing one another.)

Coupons and Discounted People

CC BY-NC, SamPac, Flickr

CC BY-NC, SamPac, Flickr

My first real job was at a drugstore during my high school years. It was formative for me in many ways, but there is a small, simple lesson I learned there that I want to share with you.

People were always eager for weekly sales, and some items required a coupon to receive the discounted price. But when shoppers didn’t have the required coupon, I would have to deny them their deal because the clipping was…policy (queue music: duhn, Duhn, DUHNN!)

Of course, they hated it and soon I hated it, too—their dissatisfaction and appeals for the manager. But the lesson became bigger than a mere bottle of shampoo or 12-pack of Coke. It was about people…everywhere, particularly the disenfranchised.

The coupon incident let me see a larger group of folk with a host of needs who find themselves in a big business nation that often turns them away with not much more than a Sorry-that’s-policy attitude.

Do you tire of news stories about people going bankrupt and losing their homes because they get sick? I’m shocked that the top tenth of the top one percent of rich Americans control half of the entire nation’s wealth. And I’m beyond maxed with the cavalcade of contests and reality shows that lure and exploit people in the name of money and status.

Those missing coupons did something for me. They sharpened my vision of hurting people, not any wealth I might chance to have. They taught me that if you wish to help others, just do it—don’t make them jump through hoops for what you can freely and simply offer them. Be good to people and make life easier for them with your capital, not always for it.

This approach will also put an end to fundamental but needless questions, like “Do successful people have an obligation to give back?” and “Should athletes be role models?” Those questions always miss the point. Giving back is not a burden; it’s a privilege.

There’s enough wealth in America for each of us to live comfortably as middle-class citizens, but there is little hope of the people who most need that wealth ever seeing it. Moreover, our systems are broken. But what can happen within each of us is sensitivity to other’s needs and the compassion that motivates us to give of ourselves and our substance, expecting nothing in return.