I have found most hospice patients happy to see the chaplain, or least receptive. At worst, distracted or indifferent. But I once had a patient who was downright hostile, and made it clear that my visit was something to be checked off with as much dispatch, and as little engagement, as possible. He laid down on the bed in his worn leather jacket and dirty baseball cap, answering my assessment questions peremptorily: yes, he’d made peace with his children; yes, he’d said his goodbyes. He was fine, thanks, And that seemed to be all—until I learned that he was a retired union organizer.
I mentioned that some of my Dad’s uncles helped to organize the West Virginia coal mines. After a rich silence, he said softly, “That was back when you could get shot for doing this. Those guys left all the cushy jobs to us.” Before I left, we held hands and prayed together.
In his 1988 memoir, The Ragman’s Son, Kirk Douglas revisits Paris some years after having been stationed there during the Second World War. Unable to recapture the feeling he’d had during those heady days, he realizes that what he is actually searching for is his 22-year-old self, who, obviously, isn't there to be found.
I had a similar experience the first time I revisited the Sterling Renaissance Festival after some years away. My first two years at that show – living in the woods, swimming in Lake Ontario, performing with extraordinarily talented colleagues – were in many ways idyllic, and I was eager to relive the feeling of freedom I had had there in the first blush of my youth.
It didn't happen. No matter how I tried to re-create the experience I remembered, it simply didn't feel the same. Then one morning as I walked from my tent to the showers, I heard a voice say very clearly in my head, "Why are you standing here looking up at the sky?"
I knew at once the story the voice in my head was alluding to.
Then (the disciples) gathered round (Jesus) and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’ (Acts 1:6-11)
I had never really connected with this story. Centered on Jesus’s bodily ascension into heaven—an idea I have always struggled with—it had always left me unmoved. Likewise, the promise of Jesus’s bodily return is treated elsewhere in the New Testament, and is not the main point of this story.
For me, the operative part of this passage is when the angels ask the disciples why they are standing around looking up at the sky. As long as they all strain their eyes to catch sight of the bodily Jesus, they cannot look inward to find Christ in themselves, or outward to find Christ in others. Their preoccupation with the Jesus they have known makes them unable to "seek and serve Christ in all persons." (Book of Common Prayer) They were like Kirk Douglas and me, looking for their youthful selves rather than experiencing themselves and others as they are now. The disciples could not receive power through the Holy Spirit until they accepted that the physical Jesus was gone.
Now, my wife gazes meaningfully up to the sky whenever she catches me waxing nostalgic about our children's early years. When I start reminiscing about cute things they said and did when they were little, she reminds me that my smart, talented, kind, athletic, funny, beautiful teenagers are right here with me, ready to be enjoyed in the present rather than mooned over in the past.
I'm also apt to gaze up at the sky for a glimpse of the things I used to be able to do before spinal stenosis. It's easy to get caught up in missing those things: playing the concertina, going to contradances, walking for pleasure, picking things up off the floor without losing my balance. Hell, I even miss my hair – and I lost that long before my spinal cord turned on me.
If I am ever to be able to engage the life I have, I know I need to let go of the life that is gone. Not that I think anything ever goes to waste unless we let it; all those experiences – all of everybody's experiences – make us who we are, and are never lost. But as long as we stand here looking up at the sky, straining for a glimpse of them, trying to recapture what is gone forever, we cannot be of any use to ourselves or others in the here and now.
This afternoon in the supermarket, I caught sight of a display featuring some chip-and-dip snack food. The marketing goal seemed to be to give a more sophisticated air to the product, and the display's tagline read, "Life is short; use the good bowl."
I felt like I'd had the wind knocked out of me.
But I have to begin nearly twenty years back, during my mother's last illness.
Our family had a glass-fronted hutch in the living room, in which the "best" china and glassware were displayed. They were never used, because no occasion was ever festive or momentous enough to justify bringing them out of their glassed-in sarcophagus.
One day, my wife began removing the precious items from the hutch and marching them into the kitchen, placing them in the cupboards with the everyday dishes. After a couple of trips, my mother joined her, the two of them forming a little parade of crockery. "What am I waiting for?" my mother asked. "My next life?" We began putting the "best" things to their intended use that very evening.
I wasn't there when my mother died. I took my leave on a Friday afternoon for a weekend performing out of state. As I assured her that I would be back to see her on Monday, she appeared to have a rare lucid interval, her widened eyes intensely blue in her pale face as she shook her bald head, no longer able to speak but clearly saying "no." When I again promised to return on Monday, she took my right hand in hers, raised it to her lips, and kissed it.
I wonder how much of me understood that, knowing she would not survive the weekend, my mother was saying goodbye to me. Not too much, I hope; certainly not the parts closest to the surface. My capacity for self-deception is titanic, but I'd like to hope that I had no conscious awareness that I was seeing my mother alive for the last time, that I wasn't pushing the thought away because I didn't want to deal with it.
People die, and we think we get over it, but we never do. Grief goes into remission, perhaps for years, but some chance association can bring it roaring back at any time. Usually it's bittersweet, as when I see glimpses of my mom in my own two girls, and wish she could have met these children whom she would have loved so much. But sometimes it's like a blow, a shot to the gut that says, "The good dishes were ready, but you weren't."
The people we love are forever with us, and there's no knowing when circumstances will throw the loss of them into stark relief.
Life is short; use the good bowl.
Scott Robinson is an interfaith minister, musician, and spiritual director in Philadelphia. Hear his music at www.mandalaband.net.