One night, on the cusp of summer, Glenn’s wife called to update me.
“They are going to put him on some kind of super pain killer. I forgot the name of it, but I guess you know what that means. He wanted me to ask if you’d stop by.”
I had planned to go the next day and promised to make it the first thing in the morning.
Glenn was a huge man in every sense of the word. Tall, husky, and muscular. He had made his money for most of his life driving a big rig and had the kind of “manly man” swagger that some found off-putting. But those who knew him understood that Glenn had a heart of gold, and some even accused him of being a “cream puff” underneath his rough-and-tumble exterior. He had a deep booming voice that was commanding and warm at the same time. People loved his greetings, and he was a called a big lovable teddy bear by most who knew him. When he was diagnosed with cancer, Glenn swore to fight it “like a man.” And he did, with strength and bravado, until it was apparent nothing was working. Finally he asked to be admitted to the hospice where I would have this last visit with him.
It had rained for hours the night before, a hard drenching rain. When I pulled into the parking lot the air was still damp, and there were puddles scattered between the cars. But the sun was up, and there was a hint that things would soon be dry. As I walked through the complex’s lovely courtyard on a concrete path, I noticed a gaggle of young children running from the walk to the flower beds with a great deal of enthusiasm. I realized they were youngsters from the daycare that had been intentionally built on the hospice campus. As I approached they were so intent on their task that they did not notice me, and I realized they were picking up worms from the sidewalk and bringing them to the flower beds.
A young woman was watching her charges with a smile and said, “We are on a rescue mission.”
I nodded with a chuckle and entered the main building, making my way to Glenn’s room. As I entered the room he was on his side facing away from me and gazing out the big window that all the patient rooms had. He was looking out on the courtyard I had just crossed.
“Hi,” he said with a wave, but not looking at me. “I saw you coming.”
I was looking at the back of his head, but I sensed Glenn was smiling. He rolled over and confirmed my suspicion with a big ear-to-ear grin. “What in the world were those kids doing?”
“They were picking up worms that had beached themselves on the sidewalk after the rain.”
He laughed out loud, “No kidding. I’ll be damned, they looked like they were having a ball.”
“Absolutely, but they were very serious about their work.”
He laughed again with a cough and rolled back to look out the window. I sensed Glenn wanted to be quiet. I have learned from making these visits that if the dying get visits at all, they are often talked at. They are told “to hang in there” and “you’ll be ok” when everyone knows they won’t. The usual platitudes about God’s plan and such go on and on. Folks like Glenn know people mean well, and they appreciate the visits, but they know people are too anxious to just listen to those who are in their final days. It leaves people like him feeling lonely. So I often just sit and listen, or simply join in their silence. For that I’m glad for my years as a Quaker. Silence is not something to be afraid of and is in fact something profoundly meaningful.
So I sat in a bedside chair and waited. Minutes went by and after a while I didn’t hear Glenn’s labored breathing. The sound of machines, monitors, and people in the hallway evaporated. It felt like being in meeting for worship when the gathered center down and it’s just us and the Light of God losing ourselves in a blessed silence. For a moment it was as if Glenn and I were lifted up and held in peace.
Time went by and a mist began to rise over the lawn of the courtyard. Glenn stirred and sighed. “You know when this is over I think it’s going to be like that. I mean just beauty; beauty everywhere. There’s something special about the sunshine after a rain, the flowers too. That’s what it will be, just beauty all around like a sunny day after the rain makes the air clean.”
“I think that sounds like the best description of the hereafter I’ve ever heard,” I said.
“And it will be filled with joy. Like those kids, the air will be full of it, like kids having a ball and doing something they love.” He rolled over and looked at me, “It’ll be like that.”
“I think you’re right.”
“I have no doubt.”
He nodded at me and rolled onto his back with a grunt. “I’m glad you came. I wanted to say thanks.”
I didn’t bother asking him why. I knew what he meant. But at the time I was feeling particularly grateful for knowing him and sharing these last months with him.
So I said, “You’re welcome Glenn. And thank you!”
“For letting me in on what a real man is and for assuring me about the beauty you will have.”
“We all will.”
He paused for a moment and then said, while on his back and looking at the ceiling, “I have a feeling this will be the last time I see you, you know,” waving his hand around the room, “like this.”
“I suspect you’re right. But I don’t think it will be the last time I see you,” I replied.
“Oh I know that too,” he stirred to look at me and went on to say, “Thanks for everything, really,” and reached out his hand to me.
His hand had been big and bulky. Now the cancer had reduced it to a pale white appendage with frail, slender fingers. But somehow Glenn mustered the strength to grip my hand with a firmness like he always had done with pride. Something in this simple gesture reminded me that cancer could deplete his body, but Glenn’s spirit was, if anything, even stronger than before.
We shook hands and looked at each other.
“When this is all over, would you stop in on my wife now and then? She’ll have a lot of people around I guess and it will annoy her to no end, but would you do it anyway?”
“And take care of your family.”
“It’s hard, but I guess I should say goodbye.”
Glenn’s eyes moistened and so did mine.
“I know, goodbye Glenn, but like we just figured, I’ll see you again.”
“Yeah, I don’t know what we’ll look like then, but if you don’t recognize me, I’ll be the one helping the kids with the worms,” he said with a grin.
“Gotcha, I’ll know how to find you.”
I waved and he gave me a thumbs up, then I left.
It has been said that the story of Israel is one of pain and sorrow healed by joy, of losing your home and then being welcomed back to a new one. The Christian story is about birth under tragic circumstances but with the Light being born, about a death on Friday and then new life on Sunday. In short those stories are about life. About the struggles and triumphs that come to everyone. Glenn’s story was, and remains, one of rain and then sun, of pain and death but finally about hope and joy.
A few days after my visit, Glenn died. At calling hours, the funeral home was bursting with flowers that filled the room with their fragrance and everyone said he’d have wanted it that way.
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