Then things went quickly. Before addressing the prospects for surgery, the medical staff felt that Mom needed other, more critical attention. The “day trip” ended with a hospitalization, and lots of questions. Karen came home, then turned right around and spent most of the July 4 week sitting with her mother in hospital. Then, after another two-day trip home, we went back together. By now it was becoming clear that whatever would happen with Mom’s health, coming back to her home was not likely to happen soon, if ever.
I have a sister who lives conveniently close to the Hospital, and that is where Karen stayed – and later where we both stayed – while sitting with her Mom. We were not sleeping well through Thursday night, but from whatever sleep we were woken at about 2:30am Friday, with a call from the nurse. No, we didn’t need to come just then, she just wanted to be sure someone could be there before the 9am transfer to a hospice care facility. Well, then of course we weren’t sleeping at all.
At 4:30am the nurse called again. Yes, now perhaps we should call Karen’s brother and father, and come in. We threw ourselves together and hopped in the car. That’s when Karen said to me:
“I want you to be my pastor now, OK?”
Well, I’d like to think I would have been. But I probably needed the prompt. Maybe it isn’t common for a music pastor to have a lot of hospital experience. A little death bed experience. I don’t know. I’ve had enough that I hope I know how to comport myself, what to say (and not say), what to read, how to pray. But I’m not sure that would have been my natural mode in the wee hours at my mother-in-law’s bedside. My Karen is very pulled together, capable, thoughtful but not emotional, and I’m not entirely certain I would have slipped on my pastoral shoes for her. But of course, she had never sat and watched someone die. And here she was headed to sit with her dying mother.
I don’t really have a set litany of bedside readings. There are some obvious passages; and then there’s the Holy Spirit, whom we have to trust to lead us in our reading and our praying. We entered Mom’s room, spoke to her, stood by her bed, and took our (unprofessional) stock of her condition. Karen did what she could to help her mom be comfortable. She held her hand, spoke with her, stroked her forehead and put Vaseline on her dried lips. I stood on the other side and read scripture, and prayed. We were mostly quiet. Karen had some music on her iPad, that Mom had enjoyed in previous days.
First I read John 14, “let not your hearts be troubled.” 1 Corinthians 15, on resurrection. Revelation 21 and 22, on heaven. Psalm 84, “How lovely is your dwelling place . . . The Lord God is a sun and shield, blessed are all who take refuge in him." We prayed. We were quiet. More hymns. Then I read from Psalm 62 and 63. Our friend Jerry Sundberg’s recording of our friend Ed Child’s arrangement of “This is my Father’s world” was the last thing Karen’s mother heard on this side of heaven. (We are told that hearing is the last remaining sense.) She was gone, and Karen put on a piano recording of Mom’s favorite hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy” (arranged and recorded by our friend Levi Henkel).
So, in the end, I was Karen’s pastor. I was also her husband. I may give a pastoral hug to the grieving, but not a neck rub, not an embrace, and different tender words. I didn’t need an invitation to be her husband. But I’m glad that Karen reminded me to be for her what I also have been for others. If only for those ninety minutes, twenty-seven years of preparation were worth it.