y friend died earlier this evening. After nine months of living under the shadow of an inoperable brain tumour, he just breathed his last breath, the life drained out of his tired body, and he was gone. In a hospital room filled with photographs and CD’s and the clutter that comes when a family sits vigil over days and weeks, he finally just let go. With his family holding his hands and stroking his head and praying and weeping – all the while wondering at the fact that this long anticipated thing was actually happening – Gerald died.
To bear witness to such a dying is all at once hard and right and good and overwhelming and difficult to make sense of and yet the only thing that makes any sense at all.
We stayed put for more than an hour. We talked a bit, and cried a bit, and made a decision or two about the funeral, and took a hesitant stab at tidying things up. The nurses came in to tend to his body, the overtired grandkids got justifiably restless, a doctor arrived to render the official verdict. Hard to know when is the right time to really make the move toward packing up and leaving.
I knew that I needed to do something with my friend this one last time. I needed to pray aloud with him the liturgy of Night Prayer, and I needed to mark his forehead with the sign of the cross in the name of the Triune God.
I’d read aloud to him often over the course of his illness. It started in December, when the tumour seemed to be sapping his ability to maintain any kind of a conversation, much less stay awake and alert for any length of time. In those weeks, I read to him from a novel he’d been working at – Marilyn Robinson’s Home – as well as long sections of Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel. I also started to include readings from the Psalms as part of our weekly prayers. And that was also the point at which I began marking his forehead with the sign of the cross.
The first time I did that, he said that he really liked how it felt to be touched in prayer. He remarked that this kind of practice was quite utterly foreign to his own Dutch and Reformed Church roots, but that it made sense to him. At some point, he told me that he had begun to envision the tumour shrinking away under the mark of the cross, and in a sense, maybe it did. The fearful hold that a death-dealing tumour might otherwise have had on him ultimately did shrink back because of his faith in the cross of Christ. He wasn’t ever cured, but there were so many, many healing moments over those months.
He actually made this extraordinary rebound, and for several months he found himself able to do a whole host of things that had seemingly been lost to him. And oh, how we talked during those months. And then the slide began.
It was over the last two weeks, as he again became less and less able to concentrate or have any real conversation, that I again started to read aloud to him. There was this one day, when I saw that he’d been looking at the draft of an essay that Calvin Seerveld had written about Gerald’s artwork, and I asked what he thought of it. “I just can’t seem to find time to read it,” he said. But of course, by this point he was lying in the hospital with abundant time for reading; time wasn’t the issue. “Why don’t I read it aloud, then?” I said, and so it began.
Funny, but a few days later Gerald told other friends that I’d been reading to him, and when they asked what it was I was reading, he’d said, “I know this isn’t right, but I keep thinking it was The Paper Bag Princess.” I teased him about that later, and told him that I’d tell Cal that his work had risen to new stature…
It was around the same time that I began reading the daily prayer office aloud to him. You see, over the past week and a bit, I’ve made sure to get into the hospital every day, to sit with him a bit and to bear witness during the last days of his life. It just seemed to make so much sense to incorporate into that one of the daily prayer offices.
I usually pray on my own both a morning and evening prayer office, but earlier in this month while spending time with the monks at St John’s Abbey in Collegeville, I realized how much I love to pray those services in the company of others. It seemed such a good and right and natural thing to open my prayer book, and to pray those psalms and biblical canticles aloud with Gerald, even in the final days when he offered no visible response.
There were these moments – these extraordinary moments – when the prayers and readings of the liturgies would give me the words to say things that were just so… just so truthful. Do you know what it means to pray the words of the Song of Simeon – “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word” – with a dying man? Or Tuesday morning, when I hit Psalm 121 in the cycle of psalms? Psalm 121, which had been for Gerald’s family their traveling song, their prayer for the road? Again and again, I found myself praying aloud words that just anchored this process of moving toward death and of letting go in trust.
So I needed to pray the Night Office with him one last time, even if the life had gone out of that worn body and the struggle had been resolved. I needed to do it as a way of beginning to come to terms with my own sense of sadness, but also as a way of expressing how much I have valued his being with me in the work of common prayer. I’ll miss that part of our friendship, even it is something that only came about over a couple of weeks in a hospital room.
And I’ll miss him. His name was Gerald Folkerts. He happened to be a visual artist of significance (that’s a thumbnail of his self-portrait, from his Restless Slumber series of paintings), and a person with a good and inquiring mind. He was a thoughtful lay preacher, a pretty serious singer, and a bit of a ham as a performer. None of that, of course, is what numbers him as one of the beloved of God, for he was as flawed and as human and as much in need of grace as any of us.
And he was my friend. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace.”