He does not deal with us according to our sins.
-- Psalm 103:10 (NRSV)
Split a piece of wood: I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.
-- Gospel of Thomas, 77:2-3*
Observing an intern chaplain's presentation of his verbatim, I picked up the paper and shook it, saying "We're not in control of this!" I was laughing at the time, it seemed such a joyful discovery. Then of course I had to convince others in the room that I am not crazy. What I meant was that you can ask the perfect question that goes nowhere, or you can be thinking of the pint that awaits you at the pub when the client opens his soul to you. It's not all about us, thank god.
I've made myself a pretty good writer, and I'm a pretty good teller of my stories; but I can't adequately describe how much I hate being on call. When the phone rings, it feels like a home invasion.
So when the call came in after eleven PM, about a family in Brooklyn whose patriarch had died, I sharply drew my breath, in a bargaining stage of grief for my Good Night's Sleep. Please God, so bitterly I prayed, make them happy with the sound of my voice. I'll say the words over the phone, and listen for them to say, "All better now, you don't need to come." Then all will be well, all manner of thing.
I couldn't afford to lose my Good Night's Sleep. Just back from vacation, catching up my own work, covering for my comrade now on his own vacation, preparing to preach on Sunday and drive to another state for an all-day meeting of my professional association, I didn't have time to stay out all night and then go to work in the morning. It was going to be a wreck, and I was going to be wrecked.
And guess what. The family wanted a visit. Grandpa's last day had been hard for him. Some of the family needed comfort.
As I walked out my door I pitied myself, and muttered audible curses.
In the middle of the night you learn secrets of the subway system. Like how interminable are the waits and which lines, unbeknownst to your apps, won't be running, so now, when you've gone as far as you can by rail, your walk through unknown neighborhoods will be longer. You also learn how easy it is, though you have a compass in your phone, to get disoriented and walk a long time in the wrong direction.
About two o'clock I came to the door, still open and watched by two children. The social worker had come and gone, and the funeral home had already taken the body. "They're upstairs," said one of the kids, and led the way.
Around the bed where he no longer was, his children sat. Bad timing, I thought. Behind the eight ball for botching my midnight travel (and for my secret bad attitude), I apologized and offered to say the prayers we would have said in his presence. So we sent after him, on the road to his maker, the blessings and entreaties spoken for centuries, amen.
No one moved. We sat around the bed where his spirit remained. I thought of what I usually do before it gets to this. "Do you want to talk about him?" They did want to talk about him. Three daughters and a son, with spouses and children, they told their stories that added up to one story.
An island man with a gift for figuring things out, he came to the country for opportunity. It was hard here for a black man to get credit for his intellect, and sometimes he had worked two jobs to get the bills paid. Then in twenty years with the MTA he had risen to management. Always when he came home he was for the children. No matter how many hours he worked, they said, we always knew he loved us. And he was our teacher: always he said work, study, learn. He read the papers and heard the news, and could talk about the world. Go to school, he said; study, get degrees, work with your mind.
They all had graduate degrees. They had all become mind workers. He was ninety years old when he died. One of the sons-in-law looked at me and said: "You don't realize that we're all retired now. We're all over sixty-five." They looked in their middle forties.
They were done. There was a great softness in the room, and we sat in the midst of it. I don't know whether I actually said this or only thought it, but we all knew the truth, that their father's life was triumphant, and they were his triumph.
We sat together in the glow, reluctant to leave. The spirit of the man could go now in his proper glory.
It's not all about me. His son drove me home. I got back to my desk, and began to write the report, at about four. My week was ruined, and I was glad.
*The Complete Gospels, ed. Robert J. Miller (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 1994), p. 317.