October 5 marked six months for me in hospice care. When I was enrolled, my doctors did not expect me to live past six months. But October 5 has come and gone, and I’m still here. I wish to write and give praise to God for life, and reveal some of my thoughts and feelings about living past the hospice date.
First, I want to thank God for continuing to give me the physical stamina, psychological health and spiritual vitality to keep going. I had my heart transplant in November, 2003, and am approaching my fourth anniversary. But my body has been trying to reject the new heart all this time, and seems to be making significant progress recently. That’s why I received such a dismal prognosis in April.
The average length of stay under hospice care is ten days. Most people sign up so close to their time of death (not that they know their death will come that soon) either because they didn’t become aware of hospice until their condition was severe, or because they knew of it but considered it as equivalent to “giving up.” At any rate, ten days compared to over six months is significant, and I am grateful for God’s care.
When I speak of God’s continuing care I am not suggesting that those who live only a short time after learning they have a terminal condition are not cared for by God, but simply that I am thankful to have life. God obviously has a purpose for my earthly existence since his word says that he works all things together for good to those who love him. God’s ways are mysterious, yet I am happy to soak up the sense of his presence daily. Intimacy with God has become more real to me than anything in the “real” world.
This leads to my second reason for writing—to express some thoughts about my thoughts during these recent weeks. This is an area of life that is somewhat difficult to write about and speak about—not because I desire to keep the subject matter private (I’m fine with talking about it), but simply because I struggle to find the right words to express these somewhat mystical concepts. My wife, Judy, knows more about my thoughts in these matters than anyone except God himself. I walk around the house speaking freely to Judy, and communicating continually with the Lord (although not orally, because it depletes what physical strength I have). So, Judy and God are my constant conversation partners.
I ask myself, most of all, “When will I die?” I don’t think I really want to know, but this still seems to be my most frequent question. On some days, with my weakness and light-headedness, I feel that I may very well die that day. On other days I have a base-level of stability that suggests to me that I may live for some time yet—perhaps several months or even a year. Judy and several friends are praying for wholeness for me, and believe that God is not intending to call me home soon.
The second most frequent question that comes to me is, “How will I die?” A few months ago I started a file folder titled “Dying Process.” In it I have several items: a booklet on “Death and Living,” which “describes what takes place around us and inside us at the death of a loved one.” It seems to be aimed at the survivors, not the one dying. I have an e-mail from a relative describing some details of a friend’s dying. I have a confidential article by a man who directed a hospice facility for nine years, focusing on the mental anguish of the residents due to their war-time experiences. I have a scrap of paper on which I made a note concerning a friend’s wife who died a year ago, on which I list the three main drugs the woman was taking at the end of her life (I am now taking two of these drugs daily).
I have an article, “Picture Christ,” by Dennis Ngien, giving “Martin Luther’s advice on preparing to die” (Christianity Today, April 2007, pp. 67-69). Luther speaks of how the devil fills us with the dread of death and cultivates in us a love and concern for life. Luther’s advice for this situation is to contemplate death all the more, but to do so at the right time, which is not the time of death. Instead, says Luther, we should “invite death into our presence when it is still at a distance and not on the move”—that is, in our daily lives long before death threatens us. Conversely, says Ngien, “Luther counsels Christians to banish thoughts of death at the final hour and to use that time to meditate on life” (p. 68). As far as I know, I’m neither at the final hour nor “long before death” threatens me. I’m not sure I’d know how to “banish thoughts of death” anyway, even if I tried.
Concerning this second question, “How will I die?”, I saw the doctor’s report on this one: It will most likely be a major heart attack, either preceded by or followed by a series of lesser attacks. I read just the other day of a man visiting one of his children in
Concerning the moment of death itself, I do not dread it, but welcome it. I long for the day of meeting with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and have no fear, even though God Almighty—Father, Son and Spirit—is infinitely holy and righteous. My inner peace and comfort is based on the forgiveness I received at the foot of the cross when I was nineteen years old. I lived in fear of death before that time, and was almost certain I would go to hell when I died. That’s how I understood God and sin, but I now rejoice very often at God’s gift of salvation through the Son.
I have many other questions to add to these two, but I need to wait for another time to consider them.
I want to send you a glorious benediction from the apostle Paul that may apply to someone in your youth, or in the prime of life, in your later years, or during your dying days. I have been studying the benedictions of scripture much these days, and I receive each one as both a pronouncement of God’s blessing on me, and a prayer or heartfelt wish for me, from God. I offer these verses to you from 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17, with this twofold intention in mind.
“Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.”