ὁδός, way, road
The hospice building is clean and pleasant, in a small town a few miles from the Illinois/Wisconsin state line. After I get off the expressway, I drive past rolling fields beginning to turn golden, down state highways flanked by oak and maple trees. In late September, their leaves are still mostly green, but every so often a single branch is glowing brilliant red.
ἐσθίω, I eat
He’s not eating much these days, so I stop at a local chain’s drive-through for milkshakes. When the masked employee comes to the car window, I order a large strawberry shake for him and then stall out. Do I want a milkshake for myself? Chocolate or vanilla? Large or small?
There are no cars lining up behind me, but the decision still feels urgent. I panic and ask for a small vanilla. As I inch toward the pickup window, I think about how I used to be able to tell the difference between important and unimportant choices. Now every decision feels important. Or maybe every decision feels like it doesn’t matter, in the end.
Driving away, I rip the paper off one of the straws and take a slug of my small vanilla milkshake. I decide it’s exactly what I wanted.
ἔρχομαι, I come
When I arrive, one of the bustling, cheerful nurses hands me a clipboard and asks me to fill out a “COVID screen.” I dutifully write my name on the form and check a box promising that I have not traveled to China in the last 14 days. This isn’t much in the way of screening, but it’s more than I had to do last week, when a different bustling, cheerful nurse just pointed down the hallway and called, “He’s in Room 1. Go ahead!”
βλέπω, I see
He’s asleep when I peer in the door of his room. I pause and note how much he’s deteriorated since I saw him seven days ago. In that time, he has gone from thin to gaunt, the bones of his face straining against the ashen skin. He’s covered by a sheet and dressed in only his underwear. I’ll later learn from the social worker that this is because he’s been restless and keeps tearing off his clothes.
His head is tilted back, his mouth open; his breathing is ragged; his lips collapse over his toothless gums. One side of his face is a deep, angry purple, bruised from a fall the night before. The rest of his skin isn’t quite the right color. I can’t tell whether this is jaundice, or just the effects of the room’s dim light.
I put the milkshake in the tiny refrigerator and ask the nurse on duty if it’s okay to wake him up. She winces. “Maybe just let him sleep,” she says. “He’s had a hard few nights. He needs the rest.”
I nod and settle into the chair beside his bed. My uncle has had more than a hard few nights. He is one of six siblings, born into an Irish Catholic family on the South Side of Chicago. From the start, he stood out from the other five. His behavior problems got him expelled from the local parish school. He picked fights. He couldn’t sit still. He started trouble, and finished trouble that others had started. Everything that came easy to his brothers and sisters was hard for him.
Those five brothers and sisters, including my father, all grew up and moved on to professional and personal success of various kinds. They went to college and graduate school; they got married and bought homes. Meanwhile, my uncle drifted. He did a short stint in the Army. He picked up odd jobs. He drank a lot. He continued to start trouble, and sometimes finish it.
I sometimes think about what his life might have been like if he had been born fifty or sixty years later, to well-to-do parents who could pour resources into his education. My dad has wondered aloud whether my uncle might have been well-served by an early diagnosis of dyslexia or ADHD. In Catholic school in the 1950s, though, the only diagnosis for boys like him was “bad kid.”
Quietly, through my mask, I read him the last rites — officially known in my church as prayers for ministration at the time of death. My family has asked me to do this, and I know it will scare him if I do it while he’s awake.
Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace.
I forgot to bring oil to anoint him, though. I’ll do that next week, if he has that kind of time.
διδάσκω, I teach
He’s still sleeping, but I’m not in any hurry. Back in August, I decided to both take a Greek class and teach a Greek class this fall, so now I carry a pile of flash cards everywhere I go. I pull the deck out of my purse and whisper each word aloud. Maybe I’ll have all my prepositions in order by the time he wakes up.
This uncle is also my godfather, and I have always adored him. He was my favorite playmate when I was little; whenever he came to stay with me and my dad, I followed him everywhere, and he seemed to genuinely enjoy my company. He was never too busy, hung over, or tired to play games with me or take me to the park. In many ways, he stayed forever a kid himself.
Now, a nursing assistant comes in to check on him and jumps, surprised to see another person in the room. I wave to her. “I’m his niece,” I tell her, trying to speak loudly enough to be heard through my fabric mask, but not so loudly that I wake him. I point to the center of the bulletin board on the wall, which his siblings have covered with family photos. “See him with that little girl in the red dress? That’s me.”
My uncle isn’t old — he just turned 70 — but he has lived hard. Addiction cast a long shadow over his life. As I grew up, I started to notice the expressions on other adults’ faces when his name was mentioned, the words that old neighborhood friends used to describe him: shifty, aggressive, no-good, drunk.
But I never saw that side of him. To me, he was always a hero.
πέμπω, I send
When I was a young teenager, somewhere around the year 2000, my uncle landed briefly in jail. My dad asked me to write him to cheer him up. I broke out the watercolors and a big sheet of poster paper, and produced an enormous illustrated letter. I’m not much of an artist, so the pictures were simple — the Chicago skyline, the sunset, some trees — but the overall effect was cheerful, at least.
The next time I saw him, when he was out, he told me proudly that he had put my letter up on the wall of his cell and shown it off to all the guards, and that the other guys had been jealous. Few of them got regular mail, and none of them had ever gotten mail like that.
I hugged him and told him that I loved him and had been thinking of him every day. It was true.
In late February 2020, just before COVID-19 shut down the world, I went to visit him with my cousin and my daughter. His HUD apartment was clean and well-kept, if also somewhat gloomy and dark.
As I walked into the tiny living room, my voice caught in my throat. There, taped above the couch in a place of honor, was my giant letter from 20 years ago. The paper was creased and the watercolors were as amateurish as I remembered, but the colors hadn’t faded at all.
γινώσκω, I know
My daughter was 17 months old at the time of that visit and not any too enthusiastic about strangers, especially strange men, but when she met my uncle, she toddled straight into his arms. She knew immediately, as young children sometimes do, that with him she had nothing to fear.
οὖν, therefore, consequently
My uncle got sober the year I graduated high school, and has mostly stayed that way ever since. But years of hard drinking had taken a toll on his body. When he was diagnosed with liver cancer, it was heartbreaking, but not a surprise.
Logos, the word for “word,” is an easy word. In any textbook, it’s one of the first words you learn when you study Greek. It’s in my flash cards not because I don’t know it, but because I want to show it to my students tonight, as an example of how to make flash cards to memorize Greek nouns. In a few hours, I will force some cheer and hold the card up close to the Zoom screen: “See how I’ve written the nominative, the genitive, and the gender? You’re gonna want to pay attention to the genitive case, because it tells you what declension the noun is in, and that will help you identify all the other forms of the noun. So, in a way, learning the genitive is more important than learning the lexical form.”
These words are nonsense to most people. Someone who has never studied a classical language might ask, “What’s a declension?” or “How many forms of a noun can there be?” But I doubt my uncle would. If he could eavesdrop on the little Greek study group I’m leading at my church, he would gaze on in wonder and later tell me that I’ve always been smart, so smart, and that I know so many words.
βάλλω, I throw
Someone else comes in, this time a nurse who’s been working with him for six months, since he was still at home. When she sees me, she smiles and asks, “Are you the priest?”
It takes me a second to register the question. No, I’m his niece, I almost say. But then I remember that I’m both.
I nod, and she beams. “He’s so proud of you. He talks about you all the time.”
With a practiced briskness, she moves around the bed, inspecting his new symptoms and his old wounds. “I’m going to have to wake him up to give him his medicine,” she tells me. I nod again. I’ve heard about the medicine.
Over the last few days, my uncle has become increasingly agitated: lurching out of bed and falling, throwing things across the room, trying to take swings at the nurses with his weak arms. No one is sure exactly why. It could be a medication reaction. It could be pure orneriness. It could be ammonia toxicity from liver failure. It could be that the cancer has finally reached his brain.
Because he had become a danger to himself and others, the hospice staff began sedating him with the old-school antipsychotic Haldol. This worked, until he figured out that they were drugging him and began refusing the meds. Now, with my family’s permission, they’re injecting him. Nobody likes it, but nobody likes seeing him covered in scrapes and bruises from falls, either.
The nurse gently rouses him by rubbing his shoulder and calling his name. He knows who I am, and recognizes me even with my mask on. He seems happy to see me and tries to sit up as I take his hand.
I chat with the nurse about life during the pandemic. She mentions the 1918 flu pandemic and asks my uncle if he remembers it. Speaking has become a struggle for him, but he manages to wheeze, “I’m not that old!”
We’re all laughing as she sinks the needle into his arm. It doesn’t take long for the meds to do their job. He slumps back onto the bed. I want to say the light in his eyes goes out, but the truth is, that light was already pretty dim.
δύναμαι, I can, am able
He tries to slide his legs off the bed and mumbles a word that I can’t make out, but which his nurse identifies as “bathroom.” She calls a nursing assistant to help her get him to the toilet, and I step out into the common room to let him hold onto whatever privacy he has left. A few minutes later, the nurse comes to get me. Quietly, she tells me that even with support, he wasn’t able to stand. He wants to, but he can’t.
πορεύομαι, I go, walk, travel, live
Returning to his bedside, I think of the Dylan Thomas poem, Do not go gentle into that good night. Later, I’ll check my email and see that I’m not the only one who has it on my mind. One of my aunts has sent it around to the family too.
My uncle, even so sick, even so feeble, is not going gentle. There is so much more he wants to do in this life. He wants to go. He wants to walk. He wants to travel.
He wants to live.
ὄχλος, crowd, multitude
If there is any mercy to be found in this hospice room, it is in the continued presence of our family. There are a lot of us, and the facility’s visitor log is cluttered with our signatures; one person or another has made the long drive up to see him almost every day. We aren’t perfect — no family is — but we are good at coming through in the clutch.
If my uncle is the black sheep, I am the pink sheep. My life has looked different from his, but it’s also looked very different from those of everyone else in the flock. After I came out as the first gay person in our family (which feels statistically impossible in a family the size of ours), he and I had this in common: We each spent time around people, places, and subcultures completely foreign to our relatives. We didn’t hang out in the same bars. We didn’t run with the same crowds. Our lives had become, in many ways, unknowable to the people who loved us most.
But, for all that, they never stopped loving us. I know, for sure, that they never stopped loving me. No matter what questions my family may have had about the life I was building for myself, they welcomed me and my girlfriend at Christmas each year with open arms; when my girlfriend became my wife, they turned out in full force for our wedding; and when our daughter was born, they packed the church for her baptism. I know many other queer people, including people from cultural backgrounds identical to my own, who haven’t been so lucky.
πιστός, faithful, believing
I shy away from using the word devout to describe myself. To me, “devout” connotes “rigid” and “joyless.” But, at least on my best days, a devout Christian is exactly what I am, and a faithful Christian is what I strive to be.
“Belief” has never felt strong enough to describe my faith. I know that there is a God. I know that God is good. And I know that my uncle will be welcomed into heaven with open arms, by a God who loves him and knows him by name.
I reserve “believing” for things I can’t be sure about. I don’t know what the afterlife will look like. But I trust in God, so I believe it will be something good.
I never had any long talks about faith with my uncle, but when I visited him last winter, he asked me to bless some holy water for him. After we filled a Tupperware container from his sink, I did.
We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.
We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.
Now bless this water, we pray you, that it may be a sign to us of our Baptism, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of the perks of being a devout Christian, if that’s the right word, is that you lose your fear of death as an existential concept. I am not afraid of my own death. That’s not to say I have no fears surrounding death. I am very afraid of the deaths of people I love. And I am afraid of dying in an unpleasant way.
In 2012, our family lost a close friend, also to cancer. It took me two years to be able to talk about her without bursting into tears. In 2017, we lost my youngest aunt, also to cancer. I held it together through the funeral reception, and then cried so violently on the drive home that my wife almost ran the car off the road. In 2018, we lost another uncle, the father of my closest cousins, also to cancer. This time, I was too stunned to cry. I kept thinking that there must have been a clerical error somewhere and staring at the doors of the church, willing him to walk in and stop the funeral, waving his arms and explaining that there had been a big mistake.
Cancer. I am not afraid of death. But I am definitely afraid of cancer.
νεκρός, dead; οἱ νεκροί, the dead
I have been a parish priest long enough to have spent some time with both the dead and the dying. I can tell by looking that my uncle will soon join the ranks of the former.
Curiously, while I have something of a phobia of dead animals, I am not afraid of dead people. I have held their hands, anointed their foreheads, and encouraged their family members to come close enough to say one final goodbye. I would very much like to be with my uncle at the hour of his death, but I know that some things are beyond my control.
I think about the beloved dead who will be waiting to greet him on the other side. I think about my uncle’s funeral, at which I have promised my family I will officiate, and about finding a guitarist to play some of his favorite Beatles songs. I need to fill out the paperwork to inter his ashes at my church, where I can visit him every day.
I squeeze his hand. “I love you,” I tell him. “I love you so much, and our whole family loves you, and we’re all praying for you. I’m glad you’re my godfather. I’m glad to be with you. I love you.”
He’s getting sleepy and can’t answer, so I squeeze his hand again, twice, once for each of us.
μένω, I remain, stay
I poke my head into the nurses’ station and thank the head nurse on duty for taking such good care of him. I ask her if there’s anything else the family can do. She sighs.
“Be here,” she says. “Just be here. He’s different when all of you are around.”
At some point tonight, I will need to walk away and climb into my car. My wife and daughter will be at home waiting for me. I’ll tuck my daughter into bed and then open up my laptop to quiz my Greek class on their new vocab words, making sure they have memorized the genitive case of each noun.
But right now? I can be here. I can just be here.
I return to his room and take my seat at his bedside, and I stay.
My uncle and godfather, Patrick Dennis Healy, passed away on October 5, 2020. Please pray for him to rest in peace and rise in glory.