I walked away from my conversation with John’s only remaining family, a sister and brother-in-law, wishing I had known him better when he was alive.  But that always happens when I interview a family before attempting to conduct a memorial service or funeral.

John died on a Wednesday.  He was a member of The Special Gathering, a ministry within the mentally challenged community.  An important part of our Melbourne program and a member of the choir, we were often cloistered in the van traveling with the rest of the singers.

Therefore, I probably knew him as well as anyone did, other than his family.  But I realized as I got into my car and sat for a few moments reflecting on John’s life that there was so much more to know about him.  These were important things about his past that had shaped him into the man I admired.

There were vital details that I didn’t know or understand.  John was 84 when he died.  Which means that he was about 74 when I met him.  He was a tall and thin man who always stood straight, proud and erect.  He smiled often but you had to savor his words because he didn’t often share his thoughts with anyone.

John was born and raised on the farm.  All his life, he knew hard, hard work.  Therefore, he was stronger than most men half his age.  He loved to work; but, like many people, he was hesitant to push himself into an unknown situation, concerned that he might make a mistake.

For 65 years, John was a devoted train watcher.  The trains carried coal from the mines of Pennsylvania, running directly through the middle of the farm.  Most of his life, his partner in the fields was his father.  Unwavering, the pair sweated through the heat of the day and pouring rain.   But the men would leave their plow and hoe and straighten up as soon as the rambling or whistle could be heard.  They would take off their hat, pull out a handkerchief and wipe the sweat from their face and neck.  The duo watched every train as the cars ambled or raced through the middle of their crops.

“If Mother caught them, she would scold unmercifully,” his sister reported, but her temper couldn’t keep them from stopping when the next trains rambled past.

After John severely broke his leg at the age of 65, his sister and her husband brought him to Florida.  He lived with them for the next 15 years.  He continued to work, helping with the household chores.  He went to Easter Seals at the Alzheimer’s section.  Though he had not one bit of Alzheimer’s, he delighted in helping to push the wheelchairs of the other more frail members of the troop.

While we don’t ever admit it, there is something wonderful about death, that final passage of life.  Because people stop to remember.  We brace our hoe under their armpit and take off their hats.  Slowly, we wipe our brows and listen and embrace the rambling noise of memories.  And for a brief moment in time, we allow ourselves to rejoice in the past.

Jesus said at the last supper, “Do this to remember me.”  Memory is a vital part of the Judeo-Christian heritage.  The passover is a ritual of remembering.  But somehow we refuse to do it.  Our lives are wrapped tightly in the present and future.  Even our older generations, don’t take the time to remember…or we don’t take the time to listen.

But death abruptly unwraps the cocoons of our present and our future and we come to a screeching halt as the noise of the past slaps us in the face.  The only thing John’s family, friends and I have left are our memories of him.  His quick smile.  The way he said, “I know.”  Consequently, for a few days, we’ll savor and nourish and treasure those memories.  We will remember.

What are the treasured memories you have of your members?  What member would you miss the most?  What memories are you impressing on your family and members?

I received the call at 7:30 tonight.  John died at 6pm.  I was at Universal Studios Theme Park with a group of people who are mentally challenged.  There was no way for me to run over to help comfort the family.  So we talked on the phone for about 20 minutes.  His sister shared the pain and suffering he endured in his last hours.  I talked to her about the visits we had together in the last two weeks.

John started attending Special Gathering of Melbourne–a ministry within the mentally challenged community–about 10 years ago.  He soon joined the choir and helped each week to set up the room for worship.  A man of few words, he depended on his smile to portray his deep feelings of love, joy and satisfaction.  Two years ago, John went to the nursing home because he was expected to live no longer than a few months.  Two weeks ago, Hospice was called in and the family was told that the cancer which had been gnawing at his physical body for years was finally destroying his fragile frame. 

On Wednesday of last week, I had gone into his room and softly touched his arm.  He opened his eyes and looked up.  His smile was gone. His eyes seemed larger because his face was gaunt and thin. 

I knew his time was short.  “You’re ready to go home, aren’t you?”

  John gently shook his head. 

“You know it’s going to be a wonderful homecoming.  You’ll see your mother and father.  You’re going to be really happy.” 

“I know,” he whispered.  I prayed for him and left.

Another member was convolesing in the same facility.  She’s a young woman who is confined to a wheelchair and doesn’t speak.  The next day I came back to visit both of them.  I knew Christine would want to see John; but I didn’t think it was useful to have her see him in the weak and sick condition he had been in the previous day.  Before going to her room, I stuck my head in the door of John’s room.  The room was bare. 

Shocked, I went to the nurses’ station.  “Where’s John?” 

“He’s in the television room, watching TV,” she said, grinning and pointing to the gray headed man sitting straight and tall in his wheelchair.  When I came into the TV room, he smiled and waved to me by lifting his fingers from the arm of the wheelchair.  After a few minutes, I wheeled Christine into see him.  She had a stuffed yellow chicken toy to give to him.  Together, they giggled and played with the chicken that cheeped like a biddie.  

We prayed with him and left.  That was the last time I saw John but it won’t be the last time that I will see him.  He was smiling as he waved good-bye to us. 

I think John is singing somewhere in heaven right now.  I can’t wait to see him healed and whole. I know from the reactions of our members when we talk about heaven that they look forward to the time that their minds will be made whole.  I often ask myself.  What will our members be like when they get to heaven?   

Who have you lost to death?  As your members reach the threshold of death, are you able to talk to them about dying?  What do you say?