Vol 9, Num 18 :: 2010.10.08 — 2010.10.21
In a song with details like a photograph, Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard captures the emotions of being in a waiting room waiting to hear news of someone’s death:
‘Cause there’s no comfort in the waiting room
Just nervous pacers bracing for bad news
And then the nurse comes round and everyone will lift their heads
But I’m thinking of what Sarah said that “Love is watching someone die”
Then, in building crescendo, the song ends with a poignant question that hangs in the air as it is sung over and over again, “So, who’s going watch you die?”
The answer to that question for many of us, of course, is that it will be the same people who watched us live — who watched us live not on the grand stages of life, but on the mundane ones, as we ate our dinners and brushed our teeth and slept and as we were sick and healthy, happy and sad. The sad truth, though, is that for many people in this world there are precious few people who watch them in these moments of life; and in their moments of sickness and death there are fewer still, perhaps there are only the watching eyes of those people with jobs of professionalized care, social workers and counselors, nurses and doctors, policemen and priests. And at the end, there may be simply no one in the waiting room to tell.
And in that scenario lies a challenge, either to God that such loneliness and pain exists in the world or to us — a challenge to help make such situations occur less often. It is certainly not my aim in this little essay to take on the problem of the existence of suffering, so a meditation on the latter will have to suffice. Though I hope this meditation will have broader applications as well, I must note at the outset that it is specifically a challenge to Christians, because if there is one place such lonely living and dying should not occur it is in the family of God.
No, this is not a story about me, but rather about my friend Anil, whom many of us, at his own insistence, also called Neil. On another level, though, it is also a story about me, because my interactions with Anil told me a great deal about myself and he enriched my life with his presence.
At the end of this past April, a dear friend of mine from church, Eddie, and I had the difficult privilege of going to Anil’s home, having not heard from him for a while, to find that he had died about a week earlier. Even without details, I am certain you can imagine the “difficult” part of that situation. But as Eddie noted later that night it was also a truly a “privilege,” one which I had long suspected I would take part in, of being there as family at the final moment, as we had been as family in some of the simple happy and sad moments of his life.
It is going to be a challenge to tell this story, not only because it is going seem like I am blowing my own horn quite a bit, but also because I want to guard in his death what I tried my best to guard in his life, the dignity of Anil’s life and person. To guard against the first danger I will also tell you a little of the interactions of others in our community with Anil and also some of the ways in which I failed him; to guard Anil’s memory, no indeed to honor it, I will tell you some details about my friend and why you need to know his story.
Having grown up in an Indian family in Hong Kong and later Guam and then moving to St. Louis, having been left by his wife who took his six-year old child who he was never allowed to see, having long lived with epileptic seizures and bipolar depression, having his Hindu family somewhat estranged from him partly due to his conversion, Anil often suffered a great deal. He was lonely and desperately wanted to be married again. This fact, combined with a somewhat poor understanding of American mores of dating and friendship, meant that he often made women uncomfortable, both at work and church. He dearly loved his family and wanted them to know the salvation and comfort he had found when many years ago he went to a park in Guam to end his life and, according to his own words, Jesus met him and gave him peace.
Anil’s passage through American society was often a bumpy one, and yet, in addition to the professional care of social workers and health professionals (whom I value greatly, by the way), he also had a network of friends around the city and in the church. Sometimes when comparing notes, someone would say, “Hey, Anil, has way more friends than I do.” And yet he needed the connection of every one of those people at some level and called them frequently. There was Mike who had met Anil only moments after his wife had left him in a McDonalds and who helped him in countless ways to get on his feet. There was Jim who took him to church and went out with him for dinner and to shoot pool on Friday nights. There were Clark and Trudy, whom he called Dad and Mom, who loved on him in frequent phone calls and took him to Sweet Tomatoes or Chevy’s or Mi Ranchito on Sundays. There were Jodi and the rest of the deacons who patiently helped him with finances. And there was Eddie who was his small group leader and big brother for years and years. And I have not told you about Tim who had a key to his house or another Jim who led music and let him do solos from time to time when the church was young, even if Anil did not sing very well, though very enthusiastically. There are others, too, all around the city, bank managers and mechanics and waitresses, who cared for Anil in their own small ways. I think you get the picture.
My arrival in Anil’s life was relatively late and yet I did develop a key role. Being half Pakistani and understanding his culture a little better, I tried to temper and mediate some of his expectations and interactions with the women in our social circle. I am sorry if that sounds hopelessly condescending and patronizing, but sometimes the services we render one another may need to have just such a blunt practicality to them. In my defense, I do believe that his interactions with women in our group were richer as a result of our talks about the issue and that they felt more comfortable with him and interacted with him more. Anil and I also spent many a Friday night eating bowls of congee at Wei Hong or having curry and tea in my home, comparing notes on the similarity of words in Punjabi and Hyderabadi or talking about 1980s Contemporary Christian Music or our families or who was dating whom. Anil was always interested in the dating conversation, and frequently asked me why it was that I was not dating anyone at all!
I will not pretend that I never spent time with Anil and did things for him mostly out of a sense of duty, but that is also true for many of the ways in which I take care of my father now as he lives with me or in how I work for the church in various capacities. But “duty,” much as we might like to think otherwise, is not an inherently a bad word. We have a duty to love one another, and love is sometimes simple, practical slogging no matter how we feel about a thing. And, yes, there were also times when I felt resentful and grumbly about the time or energy being with Anil might require, when I let the phone go to voicemail or did not call him back right away. And yet, despite all of that, I can honestly say that I loved him deeply, that I often enjoyed spending time with him, and benefited from his presence and voice in my life. And I believe he loved me in return.
I loved him for whatever the reasons are that we love our family and our friends, because of and in spite of their loveliness and weaknesses. Anil greeted everyone with a cheerful, smiling sincerity and encouraged people, often quoting some passage from the Bible, which he listened to all night on CD. And in small group, when he prayed — well, I can’t really describe it, but one got the sense that God was right there listening as Anil cried out, “Oh, God…” And he often encouraged me, too, as I was honest with him about my own depression and loneliness.
On the night we went to Anil’s house, after the police and the EMTs and the firefighters had arrived, I took Anil’s cell phone, blinking with a week’s worth of unanswered calls, dialed the number back to his mother in Guam and told her the news. And then I did the same for his brothers, one in Hong Kong, the other in Guam. As the night wore on and the official-ness of death began to take hold, an interesting transformation took place as the law proscribed the right to make decisions and the right to know information only to next of kin, in which our kinship of care had no standing.
I mention these facts not to decry the laws that make things this way — they are good and proper — but just to note the irony. And yet, despite the fact that we had no legal standing or connection to Anil’s affairs, over the course of the following days, my fellow church members and I did not relinquish our role as Anil’s family. We offered our love to his blood family as we did to him by offering practical help, with information about hotels and crematoriums and American funeral customs. We carefully planned for and invited his family to a memorial service at our church. And then, on the first day of May, we gathered together and sang his favorite songs. It is quite something to sing “Blessed Be Your Name” at a funeral and feel the weight of every repeated line of “You give and take away.” We heard the gospel gently and winsomely preached by Pastor Barry, beloved by Anil. And then we had the deep, deep privilege of telling his mother and father, his brothers, his ex-wife and his beautiful 17 year old son — who looked just like a young, healthy version of Anil — about the last years of his life, about his beauty and his pain.
I will not pretend that that afternoon was not difficult at times, both because of missing Anil, but also because of a muted struggle (which arose more strongly upon reflection later) to suppress a resentment of sorts that his own family did not take care of him as well as they might. I longed for their connection to him not to ease our own burden, but because they missed out on him and he them. And, yet, as people filed up one at a time to say a word about Anil, it fleshed out what it means when David says in Psalm 68 that God puts the lonely in families. I cannot see how else that happens except in such mundane, difficult, rewarding ways when, as single or married folk, we crack open our lives and homes and be family to one another.
I hope you have not read this article and thought it was a simple patting-on-the-back of me and my church. I hope you gathered the tension and the difficulty that is nascent in me, even in carrying out these relatively small levels of care for others. Others “crack open” far more of their lives and homes by having people live with them or placing themselves in danger to reach out to the marginalized. A dear couple I know was recently shot at eight times while picking up children for church because they have begun to minister to sex workers in our city and their handlers are none too happy about it. Other families open up their homes and let college students stay for little or no rent until they find their feet. Other more famous examples like Amy Carmichael and Mother Teresa not only open up their lives a little but virtually give them up entirely.
And as I list these examples, I know that the fear and questions rise, because they still arise in me: If I get involved, where will it end? How much must I do? How much must I give? What good will it do anyway? Is it safe? For me? For my family? Isn’t that what professionals are for, really? Scripture provides both discomfort and a balm.
A persistent drumbeat from the law, through the wisdom literature, especially through the prophets and gospels, to the epistles, drives home the point that God cares for the weak and marginalized. God does not choose “the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are” only to be a metaphor of our spiritual poverty in comparison to him. Rather, Jesus’ immanence and incarnation began in the margins of the margins of the Roman empire. His often physical interactions with untouchables — a woman with bleeding, a sinful woman, lepers, demoniacs, the dead — and his insistence of his disciples like James that his followers not “insult the poor” but treat them as siblings all speak of God’s deep love for people often overlooked by the world. And the passage in Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats and numerous others leave no doubt that as his children we are to share that family characteristic.
Difficult questions about caring for others are not inherently bad, but the fear that often drives them can deaden our hearts and paralyze our wills. Such fear is driven by a lack of faith that God will take care of us (though not necessarily on our own terms) as we obey him and pursue things close to his heart. And such fear, driven by unbelief, manifests itself in so, so many ways with which I confess I am all too familiar.
Yet there is a balm as well. The famous passage from 1 John 4 about our fear and our standing before God is right in the center of a passage about loving others: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” I cannot help but believe that there is some warrant to make the connection — that as we come to understand that God has removed the fear of judgment, his love flows into our hearts, helping us to love fearlessly those whom he loves.