“To have shortened his life for fear of suffering would have robbed all of us of gifts like this one …”
I sat with him in a darkened room. Light caused nausea and discomfort for Jim. It was easier for him to relax in the dimness. As we began to talk, Jim was quick to speak of the pain and the struggle of the last couple of days. He wasn’t complaining or whining—simply reflecting the reality of the journey.
It was easy for us to go down this pathway. In fact, it was expected. Jim found it helpful to talk about the moment of dying and the struggle of leaving the people he loved so deeply. However, he was ready to exchange the pain and suffering for the next step. We talked about what that next step might look like, the deep questions of what goes with us when we die. Do we carry the resemblance of our bodies? Will we feel things? Will we look different? It was a wonderful exploration of mystery, done without the need to know, trusting that something is to follow. Finally Jim said, “I’m ready for the next part of my journey. It’s time to let this part go and find out what the next leg of the journey is like.”
Then Jim told me about his dream. He had told it to Sandra, his wife, immediately upon waking. I could tell, as he told it to me, that it was still very vivid in his mind. He was in a room where his parents, both of whom are dead, were getting ready for a special event. Jim said it felt very normal as he came into the room. His dad was tying his tie. Jim said he knew it was a special occasion because Dad had his good suit on. His mom was wearing her best dress and was putting on makeup. Jim asked what the occasion was. His Mom looked at him, smiled and told him, “Someone special is coming.”
Jim asked if he knew this person, and his mom smiled again and said, “Oh, yes. You know him very well. We are so excited …” Then Jim woke up.
“I knew they were getting ready for me!” Jim said.
I could tell that the dream was a source of comfort and relief for Jim. Even the recounting of it evoked wonder and a powerful sense of presence in the room. I felt it, and my skin prickled.
Sandra was there, as always, lovingly stroking his leg, and Frank, his son, joined us as we began to review Jim’s life. What stories they shared!
Jim told of his first job driving big transports—without a licence or any training. He wasn’t caught for almost a year. We heard about the commendation he received from Jefferson County, New York, for his help during the ice storm of 1998. He rescued a woman, her two children, and an older couple who had all been stranded on the highway and gave them a warm place to stay for two days. He was surprised when, a month later, he received the commendation in the mail. He never sought or expected anything for doing what he saw as a normal thing to do.
Jim laughed his way through stories of when Frank was just a baby and they would all travel together sometimes. His son knew some of these stories, but there were some he’d never heard before. Jim choked up when he recalled how hard Sunday afternoons became, when he’d have to leave his family and head out on the road alone. He remembered crying every time. It was good for Frank to hear these stories. They told him how special he was, and that his dad’s absence from home was a sacrifice, not an escape.
After an hour, Jim stopped. He looked at us and said, “Look how much I have perked up! I feel so much lighter, and I’ve laughed. My life hasn’t always been easy, but it has been good.”
This is why I believe life has meaning even in our suffering. People who make a decision about ending their life out of the fear of pain don’t understand the moments that Jim shared with his family and me—a hospice worker there because of his journey. The whole time Jim spoke, he was rubbing his extended stomach to ease the constant, nagging pain. That sacred time will be forever etched in our memories. The life Jim shared with us that day was overflowing with dignity. By his own admission, his last days were some of Jim’s finest living. To have shortened his life for fear of suffering would have robbed all of us of gifts like this one—an afternoon I will always look back on with great thankfulness and humility.
Postscript: Jim Bird passed away on July 20, 2016, surrounded by his family.
David G. Kennedy is a licensed grief counsellor and the bereavement co-ordinator at Hospice Peterborough in Peterborough, Ont.
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This article appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of testimony, the bimonthly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.