Some of our conversations in life seem relatively trivial; some more noteworthy. Hear the story of a profound discussion I had with a Wings of Hope patient and his wife just two weeks before he died.
I met Bill and his wife Doris in their niece’s living room. They had left their home in Byron Center, MI to spend Bill’s final days with their niece and her husband in their Allegan home. Bill, Doris and I were sitting in easy chairs, Bill with his chair in a reclining position. At age 85, he was suffering from cancer. He was cordial; yet I noticed he seemed to have an edge to him, too.
As we got acquainted, Bill mentioned his U.S. Army service in Korea, his work at General Motors, how he enjoyed fishing and how he had lived in Cedar Springs, Michigan in the 1970s. Up until that point, this had been a routine conversation. But now I became more interested because I had lived in Cedar Springs in the 1970s as a high school student. I glanced at the information sheet in my lap to be reminded of Bill’s last name – Parker. “Hmmmm,” I mused aloud, “the only Parker I knew in Cedar Springs was my good friend David Parker. We went to church together and hung out at school before he drowned on our Senior Class Trip.”
Now, Bill’s posture shifted as he sat straight up in his chair, leaned forward and said with a hoarse whisper, “That’s my son.” Later, Doris said the hair stood up on the back of her neck. Mine, too. I leaned forward as vivid memories filled my mind and tears filled my eyes.
We discussed the events surrounding David’s death. Bill was as eager to know my side of the story as I was to hear his. I told him how our classmates and I did not know how David drowned. The rest of the class was having dinner in a nearby cafeteria when he was evidently alone in the pool. We wondered if he was unable to swim because of an arm brace he was wearing at the time.
When I inquired whether Bill ever learned how the drowning occurred, his voice took on more of an angry edge. He said that David had been deathly afraid of water his entire life – and never had gone swimming. Bill was convinced of the worst possible scenario. Although he didn’t know exactly what happened, he was sure there had been foul play because David would never have gone in the pool on his own. That police investigators did not agree with him and ruled the drowning accidental only added to his anger.
I explained to Bill that I did not attend the class trip that day because I was working at the local funeral home. And how, late in the afternoon, the funeral director asked me to go to the garage as an ambulance was pulling up to unload a cot with the body of a drowning victim. The ambulance attendant and I wheeled the cot to the prep room and unzipped the cover … And that was how I learned of my friend’s death.
There I was as a 17 year old, confronted with the eerie sight of David’s face.
I explained to Bill how our class of 1977 wore black ribbons on our red graduation gowns a week later to honor David. Several of us went out to the cemetery to see the special gravestone engraved with the image of a pickup truck. Bill explained how he had that stone created as a memorial of the last project he had enjoyed with David – restoring a truck for David to drive.
Back and forth we went, all three of us fascinated with the conversation. My knowledge of the details convinced Bill that this man now sitting in his living room had actually been with his son 36 years earlier.
Bill then told, once again with that edge of anger, how his first wife blamed him for causing David’s death. David had come to his Dad to ask for the $20 to go on the Senior Class Trip. And Bill gave his son the $20. After David died, his wife would not forgive Bill, making her accusation on a daily basis. The marriage ended. Bill began to drink too much – even drinking on his breaks at General Motors. His pain was great in thinking justice had not been served to whoever had caused his son’s drowning. His wife’s finger-pointing tormented him. And he had lost his son that he’d had a close relationship with. All of this was locked up inside him like demons in a vault.
Near the end of our visit, Bill gradually reclined in his chair, becoming weary with the effort of conversation. I realized I should leave and excused myself. When I stood to leave, Bill rose from his chair with great effort, looked me in the eye, shook my hand and, with obvious meaning, thanked me for talking with him about his son.
You may have used a combination lock somewhere in your life: on a bicycle, a locker or a safe. As you turned the dial back and forth to the proper number, the tumblers were opening up inside so the lock would open. The tumblers were turning in the lock of Bill’s vault and the door was ready to swing open.
After saying goodbye to Bill, Doris walked me to the door. Outside, Doris confided that Bill had not ever discussed his son’s death over the years. He had told her once that his son had drowned. But he kept his torture locked up alone for 36 years…
Until a Wings of Hope chaplain came to sit in his living room: The right person at the right place at the right time.
Doris later asked me to officiate at her husband’s funeral. She wanted me to tell about our conversation regarding David’s death because it had become an important piece in Bill’s own death.
At the cemetery, Doris told me how, in Bill’s final days, he never stopped talking about our visit, and his memories of his son. He retold the story for each visitor. The door to the vault that had been closed off for over three decades was now open. He was a different man in his last two weeks. He had peace. He told his loved-ones that he had finally found resolution.
We all want to make a difference with our lives. We want to rise above the trivial and have a significant influence in the lives of others. I have frequently seen how our Wings of Hope staff members have been the right person at the right place at the right time in lifting someone’s spirits.
In a larger sense, each of us has opportunity to come alongside people to bring comfort, dignity, and resolution – often helping to tie together loose ends.
By: Greg Carlson, Spiritual Care Coordinator
Photo credit: Craig Gardiner Photography