I sat by his bed because there was nothing else left to do. He lay fetal, curled up tight into himself against the hospital bed railing. He looked like a caricature of himself. “Moon face” had taken over all his features and then worked its way down his body, bloating and distorting the man who had ridden his bike 3,500 miles from Alaska, who ran in 24-hour-races and called his friends derogatory names impugning their manhood if they couldn’t keep up with him at work.
He slept almost peacefully. He would moan and rub his face or brush at his I.V., but he never knocked it out. The morphine kept pouring into him, keeping him from agony and consciousness. His wife and her mother and his mother and I stayed by him in turns and recited stories about him. Half of them I heard for the first time there. He was crazy, certainly. His pain tolerance exceeded that of mere mortals. He had never turned away from anything, it seemed now, in his entire life, but rather grabbed everything by the throat and conquered it. But you can’t really grab death by the throat.
He had done the closest thing, I think. He had refused to blink, refused to wince or cringe or ever, even once that I witnessed, feel sorry for himself. In the last months he had swung from wanting to stay so he could raise his 3-month-old baby girl to wanting to die so he could be with God fully. Two months earlier he told me that he no longer “tried” to hear God’s voice; God now spoke to him direct and clear. “Just like I’m talking to you. Except he says better things.”
One of the things God said was to try the snake venom. His mother had heard about a clinical trial that treated brain cancer with snake venom by shooting it directly into the tumors. Reports from the first study were positive but the second study had sounded overwhelmingly successful. You always wanted to use the “M” word. At first, he had said no. “If God is going to heal me, I don’t want people to be giving credit to snake venom!” But a week later he said, “God told me, ‘Hey, Stupid. You need to do that!’”
Does God address you as “Hey, Stupid?” No, me neither. But I’m thinking now, after it all, that this doesn’t disprove either God’s existence or Fred’s hearing. Certainly God deals with each person differently, uniquely. I mean, if he really does know everything then of course he would.
But Fred needed to live one more month to make the next clinical trial. That’s what we all prayed for. Technically, he did. But he also needed to be strong enough to undergo the treatment. Instead, he was laying there waiting for his body to release him. The four of us prayed together, crying, laughing, reminding one another what he would say. We asked God to let him die quickly. After four months or nine months or nine years of praying for his healing, we asked God to…kill him. We call it “take him” or “release him” or even passively “let him die.” I’m not sure I can explain the difference now, not with God. I know the difference between my letting him die on his own and killing him, because I don’t hold life in my hands. One of the Psalms says, “When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.”
Ten years ago, I screamed and prayed and watched while my infant son died. God did not heal him from his heart failing, shunting blood so that he suffocated while on one hundred percent oxygen. So many stupid things people told me about God, about my faith, how God trusted me and I should be happy and thank Him; it took me three years to recover faith and understand that God had not betrayed me and that most of my anger was at people who spoke untruth about God, not at God himself. But I still can’t explain the difference between God letting a baby die and causing a baby to die. And so with Fred. If God can heal and does not, God allows death. But if each of us lives because God sustains our lives, then when our lives cease… Yet this path has pitfalls. A man shoots another man through the heart: God does not pull the trigger, God does not end the life, other than choosing not to suspend the natural laws to stop the bullet or restore the heart. Fred had a malignant growth in his head that invaded and sowed destruction and finally… God didn’t stop this bullet, this tumor, and God did not restore Fred’s brain. Did he?
Nine years ago, Fred first discovered he had cancer. The doctors did not know how long it had grown there, because Fred had been suffering migraines and, eventually, blackouts, for how long? Fred wasn’t sure. They operated immediately. He lived five years and the cancer came back. They cut it out. He lived two years and the cancer came back. They cut it out. It came back six months later. They told him that operating again would kill him, that he had no more options, and that he would likely die in two weeks…with his daughter’s birth due in three.
We all prayed in a frenzy then. I am not consistent with my prayers—I am not consistent with anything—but I thought of Fred fifty to a hundred times a day and tried to pray every time, seconds at a time. What did it mean? Was God nudging me to pray, reminding me again and again? Why does God remind me to ask Him to do what He could do without me? I don’t know. I have less than no answers. But I know this: Fred lived four months. He watched his wife give birth to their daughter. He held up his daughter in front of the congregation and dedicated her to God. Fred and Naomi named her “Eva,” which means “life.”
Then we prayed and watched and waited for a miracle. For the first month, Fred worked. He didn’t have his previous energy, but he could still work on his house. I would come to check on him and find him laying hardwood or installing tile. Fred had bought a huge, run-down two-story house when he and Naomi got married, then gutted it. They lived that way for a year, until Naomi said, “Enough!” Then they fixed up a back cottage on their property and lived there while Fred continued to restore their home. He worked as a contractor, so he built other people’s homes eight, ten, twelve hours a day and then came home to work on his own. In his spare time, he did construction for non-profits and people who couldn’t afford to pay. I am writing this while sitting on the deck he built for us: he raised the money for materials, organized the work party, and put it together in two weekends. We worked alongside him but didn’t pay a dime (other than feeding the workers).
Fred could no longer keep that pace, but he still looked for ways to help. One of Naomi’s stories: the last walk around the block Fred took, the day before they hospitalized him, three days before he… Fred saw two homeless people who had taken up residence in an alley there. He knew them. He stopped to talk with them and told them to come by so he could get them warm coats. By the time they came, Fred had lost consciousness.
“For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” I “knew” that verse but Fred taught me what it means. He did not fear death for one moment. He knew, beyond hoping or thinking or even believing, simply knew that death meant He could finally be with God. All he wanted in his last months was to take care of his wife, be with his daughter, and tell people God wanted them. He hoped to be healed so that people could see God and have to deal with the miracle. Did he get a miracle? Was it less obvious than we hoped—Fred living another fifty years and raising a family—but a miracle nonetheless? He wanted to live so that he could do more work, because, he told me, “Once you’re dead, you’re done here.” But he wanted to die because the cancer was slowly taking away what he could do and he had endured so much pain—more than any of us comprehended, I’m now sure. His pain tolerance was ridiculous. But he didn’t want to die merely to escape the pain, but because it kept him from being who he was.
I miss him. He taught me more than anyone else has about true belief. I am a pastor and a father and I try to live my life fully in God’s presence and as part of Jesus’ Kingdom. But I do not have the faith Fred had, and walking beside him through his life, dying, and death showed me how much I say but do not yet believe.
Fred slept for hours while we stayed with him. Finally, first Naomi’s mom and then Naomi left to take a rest. I stayed with Fred’s mom and we talked more. Then Fred woke up. He groaned and mumbled and we finally understood that he needed to use the bathroom. The nurse came and he kept saying, “Just two minutes. I just need to go. Two minutes.” But his arm had an IV and his balance was no longer reliable to get to the bathroom. So she and I helped him stand and use a “urinal,” the equivalent of a bedpan. He laid back down and started swatting at his IV and said a few incoherent sentences. His mother asked the nurse to increase his morphine and the nurse did.
Fred asked for some food and managed a few bites of pudding before he started to drift off. I walked over to his bedside and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow, Fred.” He opened one eye. Then he saw me, looked me in the eye, and said, “You’re a good man.”
I caught my breath and started crying (again). When I could speak, I leaned in close to his face and said, “You’re a great man.”
He held my eye, and he smirked, and it was a true Fred smirk, my friend really there again for a moment, as if saying, “Yeah, right.”
Then he closed his eyes.
He died at 6:30 the next morning.