“This is the last time you will see him. Doctors say he will not make it through the night.”
My friend Justin was dying. His body was weak and had lost so much weight that my arms were thicker than his thighs. Justin was only nineteen and had already struggled for some years with cancer that had spread through his body.
While holding what was to be an all night vigil over Justin, his mother beckoned to me that it was time to say good-bye. I had to bring up the courage to say good-bye to a friend. He was lying in his room at home where it was always a bit dark, even during the day. The wallpaper pattern was like a woven basket. He liked that; it was one of the first things he told me when we met at school.
I was glad I wasn’t alone in saying good-bye, as Xander and Tim, also friends, were with me. As we entered Justin’s room, he lay motionless. He had lost so much weight that he looked as if his skin had simply been pulled over his bones. I knew that acknowledging us was a monumental effort for him. Even blinking would take up too much energy.
At eighteen, how do you say good-bye to a friend? I had said many good-byes before but never a permanent, “this is it” kind of goodbye. Xander and Tim had been old school friends with Justin. I was the newcomer in the group, and each of us had a different relationship with him. Justin once told me that he had a “chameleon personality” and could relate well with all kinds of people and blend in with their personalities. During the time we were friends, I found this to be true.
We stood next to his bed, the three of us. Justin had a few guitars, a Marshall amplifier, and a speaker that was the size of two suitcases stacked vertically on top of each other next to his bed. There really was barely enough room even to sit.
Then Tim said something like “Good-bye, mate.” This was a true Australian farewell. In these circumstances, it implied so much more than good-bye. The word “mate” expressed a personal bond. The love in his voice ripped into my heart. Xander picked up one of Justin’s guitars and started to sing. I admired that. How could he sing? I had such a lump in my throat that I couldn’t even talk. I was too emotional and to tell the truth was more hoping to get a chance to move out of the room than stay there. As Xander began to sing, all my muscles tensed. I could feel the moisture welling up inside my nose, and tears filled my eyes. It was a beautiful moment, a moment so drenched with love that I found myself unable to cope. When I wiped my tears, I found my hand was shaking uncontrollably. I just stood there, unable to speak and overwhelmed.
All the while, Justin just lay there expressionless. His bed was positioned against the wall, and fitting tight against the foot of his bed was a large wardrobe. Justin faced the side of the wardrobe, and he looked directly at a figure of Jesus on the cross that his mother had hung there for him.
When Xander finished his song, I got my chance to escape, as it seemed like an appropriate moment to leave. Being closest to the door, I turned and exited, sensing that Tim and Xander had followed my lead and would follow. Waiting outside was Justin’s mother, and I could see by the expression on her face that she was struggling with the dread of loss. She had nursed her husband and then lost him following a long struggle with heart disease, and now this. When Justin and I were becoming friends, I had met his father a few times. I remember the funeral because it was the first funeral I had ever attended. Justin’s father was to be cremated.
Having been to more funerals since then, I know that sometimes you remember very little about them. This one was different. I can’t remember the details of the service, but what I do remember was something that has been imprinted onto my mind. The casket lay on a conveyer belt; in my perception, it was ready to move beyond a curtain and into the furnace. The curtains had opened and the casket started to move forward. There was a somber mood as background music was playing a last farewell.
Then a shout pierced the air and Justin’s mother lunged toward the coffin, trying to hold it back from the furnace. Three or four men jumped up to restrain her. She was mourning and did not want to let her husband go. My heart went out to Justin’s mother because she had already experienced so much pain and had sacrificed her life to the caring of her ill husband.
Anyone will tell you it’s a difficult journey to care for someone through a long bout of illness, but at the same time it’s love that carries you through it and keeps you going. As a caregiver you give your time, your love, your patience, your friendship, and your understanding. At the same time, you develop a relationship endured through difficult times together with a bond that is so deeply rooted that words cannot express it.
While outside his room, I glanced back to see Justin was still lying motionless, and I knew he was taking his last breaths. I said good-bye to Justin’s mom. I wanted her last moments with him to be private. She was appreciative of the friendship I had built up with her eldest son.
I can’t recall how much time passed, but I had heard nothing further about Justin. Finally, I got up the courage to call his mother and ask. I didn’t want to call because I didn’t really want to know the answer; I knew it would hurt to hear the truth. I was worried that the funeral might have already taken place and that I had not been informed.
To my surprise, Justin’s mother asked if I wanted to come and see him. I was thinking that I couldn’t go through that experience again; it was just too painful. Then she told me something that struck me and has been with me almost 20 years since.
She told me that after we left, Justin’s final moments were drawing near, so she called the priest, an Anglican Church minister. Justin wasn’t the “churchy” type and as far as I can recall, neither was his family. This was probably a formality, just something you do when death is close, or perhaps she had a buried Christian faith that I had not seen in her. She told me that the priest had come and anointed Justin’s head with oil. She said the room glowed like the lights were on. I wondered what had happened. As a Christian, I believed healing was possible, but I had never experienced anything like that. Justin recovered and carried on for another ten years after that night.
I often refer to this experience in conversations with friends when the subject of death comes up. What it meant and if it really had any impact on others, I don’t know, but I continue to carry it with me.
As time went on, Justin and I were sometimes close, but at other times, we drifted apart. Later I lost contact with Justin for a long time as our lives took us in different directions. One day while I was sitting on the beach in the blistering Australian sun, Justin surprisingly showed up and we caught up on lost time. The first thing he told me was, “I have accepted Jesus as my personal Savior!”
Well, I can’t tell you how strange that sounded, coming from him. Remember he was not the “churchy type.” His choice of words to express himself just didn’t seem to be his own. I listened to his story, and we talked for hours. We had in the past had long conversations sometimes lasting well into the night about God, faith, and Christian beliefs. He had so many questions but never had made a commitment. My one burning question for Justin was, “What happened that night when we came to say good-bye?’’
“I lay there in my room that night. My mother had placed the figure of Jesus on the cross on the side of my wardrobe. I lay there, knowing I was dying. I looked at the cross and simply said, what have I got to lose?”
His conversion took place some time later. Over the next decade Justin had bouts of remissions, but he was still sick with cancer. He returned to work but would be in and out of hospital periodically to check his progress. Once when he was in hospital there was an attending a nurse whom he was attracted to. He worked up the courage to ask her out on a date. Her reply was, “Sure, if you take me out to my church meeting.” He did just that, but instead of a hot date, he was led to a wonderful and loving relationship with the Lord.
Almost ten years later and just before he died, I was with Justin at his home. We were watching T.V. when he interrupted and asked, “Do you think I will go to heaven?”
The question surprised me because the answer was so obvious. “Of course,” I said, “that’s guaranteed.” His life had completely changed and he had indeed accepted Jesus. I wondered how he could ever have thought to ask. He looked at me with a look that implied, “Thank you for confirming that. If anyone should know the answer to that question in relationship to me, it would be you. That’s great! That’s great!”
One week later, I stood at his bedside and again found myself saying good-bye. It was heart wrenching. Justin was lying on his left side with his back turned toward me. He had the covers pulled up around his neck because he was always so cold. He was too weak to turn and face me, but as I leaned over him to see his face he nodded slightly and acknowledged me. “I’ll see you later,” I said, feeling stupid that I couldn’t find any other words. It was one of those moments when you want to be meaningful but you blurt out something ridiculous.
That was my last good-bye. I knew when I had said “see you later,” I wouldn’t see him alive again. Looking back at this statement, it may have been appropriate since Christians never say good-bye because they will always meet again in Heaven.
Some time later, Justin’s mother told me how he had died. He was taking his last breaths when he smiled, turned his face to one side, and seemed to experience some sense of relief. What she told me implied to me that God came to Justin at the very last moment. Justin was still alive and his spirit still in his own body. At that moment, Justin recognized God for who He was, welcomed Him, and then left with Him.
Although this experience made a great impact on me, I had never given it the attention that it deserved. In fact, I didn’t even consider that many years later it would lead to major changes in my own life. Yet even as something was “on the boil,” I was somehow oblivious to it.