Last month I heard that a friend of 48 years was critically ill in Berkley Medical Center. Yes, we were friends, but not close friends. Not buddies. More like colleagues. He was a Presbyterian lay minister.
I hadn’t seen him in 10 years. And now he was critically ill. I figured he’d rather get visits from closer friends than me. I didn’t visit.
And then I heard he was at the Hospice of the Panhandle. I thought of visiting, but I was pretty sure he’d rather see dearer friends in his final days. Besides, visiting the dying has never been easy for me.
But, then, dying is hard.
What’s my discomfort compared with that?
I dithered for several days.
And then I went.
I had met him soon after arriving in the Eastern Panhandle in 1975. I was an immigrant from California. He was a fifth-generation West Virginian. I was a stranger in a strange land. And yet he reached out and with his famous cheerful smile made me feel welcome.
He lived and worked in his world: Martinsburg. I lived and worked in mine: Shepherdstown. We ran into each other at various church events now and then. We exchanged pleasantries.
Sure, there are degrees of affections in friendships. But in the end, friendship is friendship, and it comes with duties, no matter how strong or weak the affection.
Duty called me toward him.
I went thinking we wouldn’t have much to talk about. It could be awkward. But I wanted at least to tell him how grateful I was for his friendship and how much I admired his work tending the small churches under his care.
I walked into his room. The man in the bed didn’t look like my friend. I assumed I was in the wrong place.
I asked a nurse. Yes, she said. That’s him.
I sat down by his bed. He breathed slowly, eyes closed. I couldn’t wake him.
I know that those who sleep on the threshold of death can still hear. So I held his hand and told him everything I had planned to say. Then I stayed for a while gazing on the sunken face that once smiled so cheerfully at me.
I no longer do “last rites.” But I kissed his forehead and offered him Bilbo Baggins’s blessing.
Wherever you fare, may you fare well.
My friend died the next day.