The final breath

With my turning sixty this year, I have been posting on Facebook what I hope are interesting things from my life.  Generally, they are fairly short bits.  The piece which follows is longer and, because it is, and because of its nature, I found it worthy to place on my blog.

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I never knew the woman in life, but I would be there for her final breath. The timing would be perfect, and this would provide me with one of the truly unique experiences of my life.

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I had been in the ministry a few years. We lived in Guttenberg, Iowa. I had a church there along with one twenty-five minutes north, in McGregor, Iowa. It was a summer Friday when the phone rang. I had Friday as my day off. It was typical of me not to shave and to dress in my grubbiest t-shirt and shorts—hardly pastor-presentable.

That’s how I was dressed when the person on the other end of the phone said, “Pastor Eilers, could you come to the Great River Care Center? A woman is near death and her two sons would like a pastor.”

The Great River Care Center, McGregor, Iowa.

When she told me the woman’s name, I responded, “She’s not a member of mine. Did you call her pastor?” “Yes. She’s a member of the ELCA church on the hill south of McGregor. I called there. And I called all of the other ELCA churches in the area. No one is answering their phone.”

“It’s my day off. I have to shave and dress. It’s a twenty-five minute drive to McGregor. Tell the sons I will be there in thirty minutes.” “Thank you, Pastor.”

I zipped my electric razor over my face, then changed into my pastor attire. Within a half-hour, I was walking into Agnes’s room, but as I made the drive north two things nagged at me.  Would she still be alive when I got there, making my trip feel futile?  Or would she linger for hours and I would find that I couldn’t leave until she breathed her last?

I entered the room to find her two sons holding vigil. I introduced myself, then asked them out to the hall. “I don’t like to talk in front of the person, and I wanted to ask some questions.” They filled me in on the basic things to help me know their mother. I then said, “Clearly, your mother does not have long. Are you okay with me talking openly with her, that she will be with the Lord soon?” They were fine with everything. We headed back into the room.

I always assume that the person in the bed can both hear and understand, so I spoke to Agnes as if she were awake. I got really close—my face only inches from hers—and put my hand on the back of her head and neck. I introduced myself and explained that her pastor could not be reached, but I was pleased to be there with her and her boys. I spoke of the blessed life she enjoyed on the farm, and everything pertinent told to me by her sons.

I then spoke of her impending death and recited some beloved Scriptures to assure her that she was a precious child of God and soon she would be in His presence in heaven. I then prayed with her.

That’s when it happened, and it happened exactly as I will now tell you, with not one bit of exaggeration.

Concluding the prayer, I spoke the benediction: “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace.” With the closing words, I made the sign of the cross on her forehead. I finished, “Amen.”

Immediately, with not a millisecond’s hesitation, she gurgled. This was the only time at death that I witnessed bile come up and out of the mouth. She gurgled once, and that was it.

She was dead.

She died the moment I finished what I was asked to come to do.

Agnes’s sons stood by, marveling at what they’d just witnessed.

On the inside, I was thinking, “Wow!  Did you see that?  I’ve never seen that before!  Guys, that just doesn’t happen!”  On the outside, I acted as if this were business as usual, the moment far too solemn for comment.

I stood. I expressed my sorrow for their earthly loss and my joy at their mother’s eternal gain. They were wonderfully appreciative that I had come. They were still shaking their heads as I exited the room and headed back to Guttenberg.

I will now admit that when I was phoned to make this visit I was not pleased. It was my day off, I was not this woman’s pastor, and I wasn’t an ELCA minister. I worked hard six days a week and loved my one full day when I could do whatever I wanted, and not have to get dressed up.

A section of the Great River Road which I drove hundreds of times between Guttenberg and McGregor, Iowa.  It was equal parts inspiring for its beauty and frustrating for its hilliness and constant curves.

But when I drove home? As I made my way down the Great River Road, which skirts the Mississippi River, climbing and descending hill after bluff after holler, and back to Guttenberg, I experienced that wonderful feeling of fulfillment. Of having done a good thing. Of having been in the most privileged spot a human being can be in, the one to whom family turned at the time of their loved one’s death.

I never knew these folks before that day, and I never saw them again. But, for a few precious minutes, I was their pastor. And this special occasion provided me with one of the truly unique moments of my life.

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