He’s been given six months.
Standing at the computer in the room, I wonder how it must feel to know the inevitable will happen, and soon. But really, when you weigh this short life with eternity, we’re all living in full knowledge that our lives are ending, and soon.
His hair has grown back along with the cancer and it’s moved into the other lung and into the bloodstream and chemo and radiation won’t treat it this time.
His blue eyes sparkle when he talks of his children; how his son helps him rebuild vintage cars and how his eldest daughter is pregnant with his first grandchild.
It’s going to be a boy.
“I have to live that long.” His voice is quiet, hopeful. “I have to live that long because it doesn’t say in the Bible whether or not I’ll be able to watch my family from above. And all I want is to meet my grandson before I go.”
He talks of death so sure, like he’s already standing on the banks of the River Jordan and can see his Father beckoning from the other side.
“What do you think heaven will be like?” he whispers.
The computer screen before me goes blurry and it doesn’t matter now, doesn’t matter at all how his lung sounds are charted and I stand there gaining my composure before turning to him.
“I honestly don’t know. But I know I wouldn’t miss it if I had the chance.”
He’s crying now, soft, and he dabs at his eyes with skinny, shrunken arms.
“I don’t want to miss it either,” he says, “but really…” His voice is urgent. “Do you know what it will be like?”
“I know what the Bible says it’ll be like but I believe it will be so much more. I believe the things we long for most here on earth will be what we notice most in heaven.”
“I just want to be outside.” He gazes out the sixth story window. Window washers crawl slowly up the adjacent building.
“Then we need to go outside today.”
Later, we help him out of bed and into a wheelchair. The oxygen tank needs to go, too, and as we make our way outside, he sniffs a bouquet of roses a wife is holding and says hi to a little girl in the elevator.
Pushing through those doors and into the outdoors, he just sits and cries.
The sun beams on his tear-streaked face. The wind plays with his short hair. Raising a skinny, atrophied arm, he exclaims, “Look! There’s green grass.”
So we slip the socks from his feet and he reaches slowly, lifting each foot onto the grass and the tears are flowing free now because he’s been inside a hospital for nearly a month and this moment, right here, is his tiny slice of heaven.
“This, this is what heaven will be like,” he sobs and he leans back, presses his face into the sun as if he can reach God and another patient pushing an IV pole squeezes his shoulder.
We stay here together, in quietness, until I lean down, whisper it’s time to go inside.
“I won’t miss heaven.” His voice is urgent. “I won’t miss the opportunity to walk barefoot through green grass again. I need to go back inside.”
And when we get back to his room, he calls his brother who he hasn’t spoken to for five years and they cry together when he tells him he won’t live much longer. And he apologizes and their conversation isn’t long but it ends with an “I love you”.
I can’t stop the tears any longer now; they streak down my face and I hold his hand in mine and there’s a language unspoken between us, like we’re brothers. And when I tell him goodbye, that I wish him the best, he just holds my hand tight and tries to speak but he can’t get the words out but we both know; we both know it is unlikely we’ll ever meet again this side of heaven.
But when we do, oh the joy, and we’ll slip our socks off our weary earth-traveled feet and there won’t be any pain and no more trying to catch our breath from life’s blows. And then we’ll step together, onto green grass, we’ll feel it tickle between our toes…
And we’ll know that we are home.
Photos complimentary from Patricia Hunter.
*the situations, dates, names, genders etc… have all been omitted or changed to protect the identity of the individuals in the story.