Won’t You Please Take Me Home?
As I made my way through the kitchen at our Wings Home, an end of life home that provides compassionate comfort for a patient’s final days, a volunteer whispered, “Richard Roundhouse is having a really tough time today. You might want to see him.”
As I raised my hand to knock on the door to Dick’s room, I heard crying. After thirty years in hospice care, I felt unsure of myself. What should I say or not say? Or should I say nothing at all?
I knew the Roundhouse* family from a church where I was their pastor. Dick had been transferred from his own home in Bloomingdale, MI to the Wings Home earlier in the day. As I stepped through the door, Dick and family were crying and sighing with great waves of grief. I stood there for a minute before shaking hands and hugging them. I asked them the reason for their distress. Donna, Dick’s sweet wife of almost seventy years, explained that they recognized Dick would soon no longer be with them.
I looked over at ninety-two-year-old Dick, a tall, big-boned Dutchman, lying under a thin quilt in his hospital bed. I took his big, strong hand in mine. He had always before had a twinkle in his eye and a ready smile. Now, however, he looked up through tear-filled eyes and asked between sobs, “Pastor, won’t you please take me home?” Because of his move that day to the Wings Home, I was thinking he wanted to go back to his own home in Bloomingdale. I reminded him that Donna and their family could no longer give him adequate care at home. I explained how the Wings Home could give him the level of care he needed during this stage of his illness.
Insight from a wise wife
But as the conversation went along, Donna kindly offered her intuition, “I don’t think he wants to go back to Bloomingdale. He wants you to pray the Lord will take him to his home in heaven.” When I asked Dick directly, he confirmed that he was ready for the Lord to take him to his heavenly home.
We talked a little about how many have struggled in earth’s final hours with saying goodbye to their loved-ones. Dick began to calm in having the pain of his separation validated. That others have suffered similarly seemed to strengthen him emotionally. I reminded him of what was just around the corner for him in heaven. Having a well-informed Christian faith, the family took hold of this thought and encouraged their cherished husband, father and grandfather. Dick responded eagerly by saying, “I want to see Jesus and my brother and my mother!” He began to smile and wanted us to sing his favorite hymns. With lyrics provided from a granddaughter’s smart phone, we sang songs of hope with Dick.
When the granddaughter and her husband needed to leave to pick up their children, they hugged Dick tearfully, saying, “We love you Poppy.” They didn’t know if they would see him on earth again. Dick exclaimed joyfully through the tears, “I love you. See you in heaven!” This was an intensely tender time as they affirmed their love for one another with anticipation of a future reunion.
Poise from a renewed faith
As family members came and went, Dick returned to “normal” conversation about family and community matters that meant a lot to him. His faith gave him confidence in saying his earthly goodbyes. His joyful spirit infused his visits with family and many friends. Our Wings Home hospice volunteers told me that Dick did not revert to a tearful place of distress for the rest of his life. Three days later, in the early morning before Donna and family arrived, our Wings of Hope Hospice nurse Michelle Torres held Dick’s hand while he peacefully breathed his last on earth – home at last. In that moment, Michelle pictured him reuniting with his loved-ones in heaven. This was Dick’s dying wish when he said, “Pastor, won’t you please take me home?”
Honor from a grateful community
Dick’s homegoing not only involved joy and peace. During his final days, his hometown of Bloomingdale was planning grand ceremonies to honor him following his death. Dick’s casketed body was moved from place to place where family and friends paid tribute to him. His church family, the local veteran groups and the Bloomingdale Fire Department where Dick served for 68 years came together to “take him home” in their own way.
As I swung my car into the funeral procession staging area, a long, tall, shiny, red Bloomingdale Fire Department truck was positioned in the street near the church door. There were firetrucks and emergency vehicles from other southwest Michigan communities parked in nearby streets, ready to join the procession. Dozens of white-gloved fire fighters in their freshly ironed dress uniforms were organized near the church entrance for the ceremony about to take place.
Dick’s family wanted his long, joyous life to be celebrated on this occasion. They didn’t want a lot of tears and sadness. But when thirty firefighters walked two by two down the middle aisle, there were not many dry eyes in the packed church. Each pair came to attention and gave a slow salute in front of the flag-draped casket before moving, one to the right and one to the left, to allow the next pair to honor their comrade. When all were in place, they stood at parade rest along the walls on the sides of the auditorium and faced the audience. The congregation sang some rousing hymns. Certain friends and family shared heartfelt tributes. A fellow veteran and the current fire chief spoke eloquently. I finished with the Christian gospel.
The firefighters then reversed their earlier pattern and walked in pairs back up the aisle ahead of the casket which was soon hoisted to the top of the firetruck. An American flag covered the casket which was strapped securely to the top of the truck. Flashing strobes were activated as each emergency vehicle was placed in the procession. Over seventy-five automobiles followed the main firetruck with Dick’s remains. We followed a circuitous route of about six miles, then turned back toward the cemetery. When we passed by the fire station, someone had placed, where all could see, a display of Dick’s helmet and fire coat with the name Roundhouse stenciled across the shoulders. A contingent of local firefighters stood in salute as the procession of their former captain passed by.
Stirring ceremony at the cemetery
When approaching the cemetery, we could see two enormous ladder trucks facing each other on either side of the driveway. These red firetrucks had their white ladders extending 75 feet and crossing to form an arch over the entrance the procession passed through. The firefighters, EMTs, and veterans were soon in formation at the graveside while the crowd gathered under and around a tent. I read from the Bible. The Navy color guard executed their drill flawlessly, then folded and presented the American flag to Donna. A trumpeter played the Taps beautifully on this cloudless September day. The fire chief brought a firefighter pager to place in Donna’s hands. From another location, a voice from Fire Department/Rescue Squad Dispatch read the “Fire Fighters Final Call,” a stirring accolade which was clearly heard over the pager by the group.
“Firefighter Richard Roundhouse – Control.
Firefighter Richard Roundhouse – Control.”
There was a staticky pause while the dispatcher waited.
“Having heard no response from Firefighter Richard Roundhouse, we know that Richard has responded to his last call on earth and that the fire department in the hereafter has a new responder.
“Richard served the citizens of Bloomingdale and Van Buren County for 68 years. We appreciate Richard’s dedication and his family’s sacrifices during the time Richard was a Firefighter.
“Richard has now become a Guardian who will help watch out for all Firefighters as they respond to emergencies.
“Firefighter Richard Roundhouse completed his tour as a Firefighter in this life.
“Be safe until we meet again.
“Control clear at 13:30 hours.”
Even seasoned firefighters had tears streaming down their faces as the ceremony ended and folks headed back to the church for a luncheon.
A few days earlier, Dick had asked, “Won’t you please take me home?” Spiritually, he was able to make his journey to heaven with joy. Ceremonially, his community helped make his journey to his final resting place full of respect and love.
*Names for this post used with permission of the Roundhouse family and hospice nurse.
Author: Greg Carlson, Spiritual Care Coordinator
Photo credit: Craig Gardiner Photography