My friend Dennis died this past Monday at 4:15 p.m. He left us despite the Dr’s projection that perhaps he had two weeks more of breath in him. Pneuma as Greek Stoics called it. The vital, spirit, soul or creative force of a person. In the end, flesh and blood can only forecast what the body will do. Science. In life’s nitty gritty, Spirit prevails. It is always so in my vernacular.
Having what I call a Divine nudge about Dennis Monday morning, I got myself on the road and made it to his home and bedside just three minutes shy of his departure. Unknowingly, Chris, his son had just left. But Leslie was there and their lovely daughter, Kelly. As was their spitfire Havanese pup, Sophie, which Dennis avowed Leslie would have sooner than later. It was a holy moment. His leave-taking. Where the veil between this world and the next was lifted and we were privileged to attend to it. Like the angels. Even in our sadness, peace was with us. Love was with us. I breathed long and deep to take it all in. I christen it one of those thin places in the pastoring life where we have the profound privilege of keeping vigil with our flock in the mystery of birth and death and all the transition points in between. There are no words.
It was Dennis’ intention to live long enough to ‘take a test drive’ in the beautiful new car he decided that his beloved wife Leslie must have after 49 years of marriage and especially after the last seven years of her unparalleled love and tireless care for him “in sickness and health” as one, two, three types of cancer ravaged his otherwise healthy body. “She deserves that car,” he told me from his hospital bed some weeks ago. Did I mention that he ordered her sleek ride from his Kaiser Hospital bed on his trusty i-Pad? A last act of fathomless love and caring. “You would do well to help me convince her, as our pastor, that she must have it.” And so, I did of course. Convince her, as had others. I always did what Dennis advised me as his pastor. Except maybe once. Dennis was one of the wise ones. An ‘E.F. Hutton-type’ where, when he spoke in a crowded room, everyone listened. On the morning of his death, he asked his beloved when her car was due to arrive? Thursday. He was shy some 65 hours. Not like him. Though he didn’t say much more on the day he left us, Dennis did manage to look into Leslie’s eyes and tell her how beautiful she was. Not a slouchy last line from the man you cherished some 49 years of marriage and 4 years of dating! If my math is right, that’s some 19,345 days of living and loving your soul mate. Shazam!
Dennis fought, and he fought hard. Perhaps too hard as his fatigued, emaciated body revealed. As Leslie said, if there was one shred of hope, he would insist on it, even if pain was involved. It was the boundless visionary in him, I guess. The man who dared to be different, regardless of what others thought. And the man who demanded that all in his sphere think with more innovation and imagination than most. Outside the proverbial box. Give life all you got and then some, he taught us. And be positive for Pete’s sake. Life’s too short to whine about it! He practiced what he preached, with tenacity. It was his breast milk. The breakfast of champions. Besides that, as a faithful husband, father, grandfather, teacher, coach, principal, counselor, golfer and Hoosier basketball fan (what did I forget) Dennis still had so much for which to live. That’s why he hung around so long. I always thought of him as a Thoreau type who meant “to suck all of the marrow out of the bone of life.” Only he didn’t go to the woods to do it.
Last Thursday evening at his home (one of his last good days), the Dr. called and wanted to talk to Dennis about his Hospice care. And he got with her, all right. “It’s not Hospice care,” he corrected her, “That’s far too negative. Call it comfort care.” And then he turned to me and said, “Sometimes, you just have to tell them, Dr. or not.” Dennis knew he was dying but he also knew that didn’t deprive him of the privilege of being human, of choosing his proper nomenclature for his departure process. He preferred to go out being as little trouble as he could to folks. That’s why he managed to sneak in and out of the hospital without my knowledge as his cleric! “Don’t fuss over me,” he grimaced! “There are people who need you more than me!” I tangled with him on that matter more than once! Told him I would be the judge of that!
Today when Dennis’ treasured family gathers in front of the toasty fire and magical Christmas tree with their pizza, sweet and salty snacks and Aaron’s selected for the occasion Smelly Dog Brew (Dennis’ son-in-law’s own label), they will cheer the Hoosiers in Dennis' honor. They told him so. And he will be there in spirit. Because that’s what legends do. Hang close. Like a fine perfume, their aroma lingers long after they’ve left the room. We would do well to bathe in its bouquet.
From my cozy nook this morning in the church parsonage, after laying Dennis to rest crypt-side yesterday in a tender and private service with his family (and publicly with his church in January), I am already missing my mentor and friend. Instead of tears, I buck up instantly and choose a positive disposition.
So, from wherever you are this morning, dear friend, having discovered the Scriptural mystery of life and death which we can only imagine from this corner of the universe, I specifically turn to these beautiful words in Paul’s letter to his apprentice Timothy, and send them your way as a fitting and final blessing:
(Did somebody read your mail?)
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
~I Timothy 4: 7-8
Your Pastor and Friend (best of all),