Tom had gotten sick fairly soon after I arrived at St. Mark.
I stopped by the hospital to see him a couple of times. And I stopped by Hillside House, where Tom resides, a couple of times.
He had gotten better and was almost returning to a normal day schedule. So, one of our parishioners thought it would be a great idea to get him a Bible and present it to him when he arrived at church, and I read a short letter that he had written for the church.
But, he got sick again and wasn’t going out much.
So, we presented the Bible to the church and I asked that people sign the Bible and I was to deliver it to him.
I waited one more Sunday to collect whatever signatures that we may have not collected the previous Sunday.
I made a note to myself that on Thursday, I’ll go deliver the Bible to him.
Thursday came, and as I looked for the number to call Hillside House, I also saw that the program director from Hillside House had called, and requested that I call back.
A few members of our church were trying to figure out how we can serve at Hillside House, so I thought that was why the program director had called.
So I called her to see what she wanted and to see if Tom was available for me to swing by and see him.
When I got through to her, she had told me that Tom had passed two days earlier.
The room went completely still and silent. It really did feel like I had just gotten the wind knocked out of me.
I heard a “Hello? Pastor? Hello? You still there?”
I was. But, really, I wasn’t.
I told her I call her back in the next few days to figure out when to do a memorial celebration for Tom.
After the phone call, there were various emotions rolling around within me. But one of them were beating the others to the surface: guilt.
I felt (… feel) so small and so incompetent.
I don’t know why I decided to wait until Thursday, waiting a week and a half to get him the Bible.
I was (… am) angry at myself.
I couldn’t (… can’t) believe that I let this happen.
I took for granted that he was going to be okay and be around.
Now, all I have are empty excuses and a Bible full of loving messages that Tom never got to see.
Staring at Tom’s bible, my mind went back about 6 years ago, when I was living in Hawaii. When I got first full-time ministry job, there was a 12 year old girl who was in the hospital with cancer. It had spread and chances of her beating the cancer had grown slim.
I had swung by with “The Little Mermaid” and we had a small “date”, watching the movie, complaining about our parents, talking story, telling jokes, laughing.
At that time, Dominos Pizza was doing this big thin New York pizza deal and she was interested in trying that pizza. So, a few weeks later, I got a couple of my unpaid servants in our youth ministry and picked up two of the New York pizzas from Dominos and we had a small Pizza Party. Near the end, she said that she wanted to watch another movie with me, The Road to El Dorado, I think.
I told her that I’ll make it happen soon.
About a month and a half later, she had passed.
I remember how incredibly selfish I was being. I was 25 or 26. Never had to deal with death, let alone with a 12 year old’s mortality. I was absolutely scared. Terrified. It made it worse that after our pizza party, she had gotten worse. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t know what I’d say. How I would act. Or react. If I would make things better or worse. What if she had all sorts of questions about what happens next? I felt ill-equipped. The fear had paralyzed me from doing anything regarding her. And, the excuses kept pouring in. The fear allowed me to remain in my selfishness.
Then she passed. To say I felt like crap would be an understatement.
I was asked to say something at her service, because her parents felt that I could share about the fun moments we had together, since she really enjoyed it.
After the service, her nurses came up to me and told me how much that movie date meant to her, and how she couldn’t stop talking about the next one and how unfortunate it was that we never got to do it again.
I drove, somewhere. Maybe it was the Pali Lookout. Maybe it was the North Shore. It just wasn’t home. My wife was back in DC finishing up her seminary career. I had no one to go to.
Wherever I ended up, I sat there bawling. Thankfully, no one was around. I was crying because of the way I felt — it was still incredibly selfish.
And here’s the kicker. I promised myself that something like this would never happen again.
Here I am, six years later, not having learned from the first time I made this mistake.
I also know that I’m being a bit self-centered in the emotions that I feel. I just… well, I don’t know. I don’t know what to do next. I don’t know what to say. I just don’t know.
There’s a reminder in this lesson of how precious and short life may be and how not to take someone’s presence for granted.
I thought I learned that lesson 6 years ago…
2 thoughts on “A Hard Lesson to Learn”
Hey Joe … Thnx for sharing. It is crazy how when we think we have learned something that we haven’t, God has a way of reminding us. You and I both grew up knowing how hard it is to be a senior pastor, but if God calls you. you’ve got to serve. SMUMC is lucky to have pastor with a big heart who can still learn.
Also … Good to see you n da Mrs at joes 🙂
What you do is so hard and so underappreciated. We all have the I wish I had done moments. May WE all be better at tending to the needs of our brothers and sisters. It is not for you alone but a joint responsibility. I pray for you as you are what the church needs to survive.