In the midst of...

Posted: Sunday, December 12, 2010

Holidays can be such a mixed bag. We cannot assume what know other people are experiencing. As for me, my significant other of two years, Chuck Bishop, recently died after suffering from a severe stroke for three weeks. So in the midst of planning Advent and Christmas services, personal holiday tasks, etc., I'm walking the path of grief. Before his death on Dec. 2, I thought of how this article would be about how even the smallest things, synchronicities and my faith were helping me in the midst of Chuck's health crisis. Now with a new depth and dimension, I can still oddly give thanks for these blessings.

In the midst of my own leave which started less than 24 hours before Chuck's stroke, I was in California with one of my best friends, also a pastor. I had flown in just the night before and we had stayed up late talking. She was running late to work the next morning and was with me when I got the call from Chuck's boss. I cannot imagine handling this information without someone like her to help me pray and handle my fears and grief. It was pretty amazing that his boss could even find my cell number - his wife has cut my hair, so she had it. It was a blessing Chuck was found quickly in the work parking lot so he received immediate care. Even my dog, who was at his condo, was quickly cared for by one of his friends. While I waited miles away to hear if they would medevac him to Anchorage or Seattle, another one of my best friends dropped by and spent some time with me.

Yet, another friend in Anchorage was getting on a plane in 10 minutes when I called and asked if I could stay at her home. The dogsitter would be there and give me the keys to my friend's car to drive. I'd stayed there before, so felt familiarity and comfort even without friends' direct presence. She called another colleague to pick me up at the airport and get me to the house. Later, her husband, also my friend, and she would be with me after he died. She even was able to travel home with me and preach at my church that Sunday.

Some friends, family and church members began prayers and I felt surrounded and help by their love and support. I cannot imagine how people without spiritual community and some kind of faith can manage anything like this. It was hard enough as it was.

As I traveled to Anchorage, even the smallest kindnesses from strangers seemed to break through the fog of fear and grief. Getting on the plane, when the flight attendant welcomed me, I actually took those words to heart. It may have been rote for her, but in some way it felt like a blessing and touched my heart. Grocery store clerks seemed far more human as I was starkly made aware that in these casual encounters we never know what another might be going through.

I have grown up around hospitals, as my father is an oncologist/internist. As a pastor since 1987, I've been in hospitals for parishioners. This time I found a different world. Here I was in a culture of health care and the need for it. It was a mix of challenge and comradery. Chuck and I faced the need for medical care improvements with short staffing, insurance-run decisions and the need for me to serve as his advocate and information carrier.

In the midst of having scores of people prodding, poking, and questioning, it was clear that Chuck appreciated people treating him like a human - with dignity and respect - looking him in the eyes, introducing themselves and accepting that he could not always respond in ways they understood. There is no telling how much a patient can understand even in the midst of severe stroke. Too many stories by people who recover testify differently. In the midst all of this, it was clear that sometimes his lack of response was because he was fed up with being asked if he could blink his eyes, raise his arm or open his mouth for the hundredth time. Those of us who knew him well were not surprised at this even when we urged him to cooperate.

Some angels shone more clearly among the medical staff and therapy team. Not only did they treat Chuck like a human, some of them actually got his personality, his humor and his independence as a quality that could serve him in recovery and not just inconvenience the staff. One physical therapist could easily see that Chuck liked to "cheat" at exercises. I kept my mouth shut until later, but I thought he was being a smart engineer-type in making the job easier even though it missed her goal of the exercise. When some of his friends sent clothes from home, many of the staff loved to see the t-shirts of Ray Troll's "hazards of fishing" and a few others that often made me blush as I laughed.

Our friends and colleagues came out of the woodwork with abundant concern and support. That his ex-wife and a past girlfriend showed up with support for me was a testimony to the kindness of this man and them. In the midst of feeling very lost and far from home, we both felt surrounded by love and prayers.

Be aware, especially in this season, that in our midst there are angels and sometimes they are us.

• Judy Shook is pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church.

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