The new career begins in a week, but this afternoon I learned that there will be one more funeral to do before I leave.
Two and a half years ago, when I came to this congregation, I met a remarkable couple. They came every week to our early service, though sometimes it was only J-- since his wife, D-- often had to work on Sundays. It was a thirty minute drive for them from Reading every week. And even when snow was drifting in the streets, there they were at the early service.
I invited them out to lunch and D-- said, "No. We will take you and Pastor Will out to lunch. Do you like Chinese food?" J-- and D-- came here from China some years ago. Both of them spent time in camps because of their belief in Jesus. I wish I could remember the whole story as they told it but there were spots where their accents made it hard to understand.
Neither D-- nor J-- ever said a complaining or unkind word. They were supportive of both Will and I and of what we were trying to accomplish in this congregation. They even gave us gifts every once in a while. The other day I wrote about my twelve books of Christmas; two of those were purcahsed with a gift card from J-- and D--.
She was a lab technician at a hospital, he was retired. "Retired?" I asked. J-- said he was almost seventy years old. I was shocked. I thought he was in his late forties.
They smiled, a lot. Sometimes it was that Asian "I don't understand what you're saying," smile. But even then, there was not an ounce of insincerity or disingenuousness or duplicity in either of them. And if that's not rare, I don't know what is.*
Doctors discovered cancer in D--'s kidney two years ago. It wasn't her first time; it wouldn't be her last. Whatever treatment she had made her terribly sick but it destroyed the cancer. In the summer of last year (2005), more cancer was found. This time the tumor was in the pancreas and it didn't respond to treatment. Nevertheless, on the Sundays following D--'s release from the hospital after each round of chemo, there they were in church. Everyone was delighted to see them. The last time, D-- wore a bandana on her head and still, that smile.
On Saturday morning J-- sent a desperate sounding email... "We need your help," was one of the things he wrote. At the hospital he pulled me into an embrace. D-- lay on her bed, jaundiced and with eyes closed, but alert and responsive.
"Pastor Jim is here," said J-- tapping his wife's shoulder. She made a recognizable attempt at a smile. J-- pulled the covers away from her arms, exposing her hand. I took it and she gripped back.
"Pastor Jim is here to pray for you."
After the prayer, I commented on the hat D--' was wearing, an ancient looking fishing cap. "It is my son's hat," said J--.
D-- grunted and turned slightly. J-- leaned over and tapped her more urgently than before. "Do you know that Pastor Jim is here?"
"I know, J--!"
They were the last words I would hear from her.
As J-- walked with me toward the elevators, he said, "The cancer is everywhere." Will verified this later on; it was in her pancreas, kidneys, lungs, bones.
She died this morning.
The memorial is Saturday at our church. The service will be a celebration of her life and a rejoicing over her eternal destiny as a servant of the Lord. Yes, there is much to rejoice about, I know this. But I'm still downhearted. When Will called with the news at about 12:45 today I looked heavenward, through the ceiling, through the roof, through the dome of gray sky overhead, and through to wherever God was surely listening and said, "This is not right!"
And though it's no place of mine to tell God what is and isn't right in His own world, I still feel the same way.
*It occurs to me that this paragraph could easily be interpreted as an implied racial slam on people of Asian extraction. Far from it! Because I have a number of Asian friends and spent all of my 6 years of higher education with Asian roommates, some of whom were bi-lingual without having mastered english, I've seen that look of confusion many times after using some idiomatic English expression. It is particular to my Asian friends, and I saw it on J-- and D--'s faces a few times as well. My sincere apologies if anyone took offense.