My biggest regret

We met in Sunday school ten years ago. Never mind that he was nearly eighty and I was forty-three. Whether debating Biblical principles or politics, Jack and I clicked. I was the leader of the class, but he was our heart and soul. His humor, practical wisdom, and kindness endeared him to everyone. When Jack shared his own struggles and temptations he opened the door for the rest of us to expose our dark sides and worries. When I requested his prayers in locating a medical partner to join my practice, he told me he’d already been praying for me every day for weeks. EVERY DAY? FOR WEEKS? How many people in my life had ever cared enough to sacrifice precious time every single day to pray for me? I felt humbled and loved beyond measure.

But Jack’s sacrificial love didn’t end with prayer. As a thank you for teaching the class, he purchased a beautiful Chinese wisteria from a top nursery in McMinnville because I once mentioned how much I loved inhaling the fragrance of my neighbor’s wisteria. He always thanked me for a “great teaching” even when I knew it was mediocre and arrived early every Sunday to prepare piping hot coffee and to greet the “early birds.”

He might be eighty-four years old and unable to perform cartwheels, but Jack was our “cheerleader.” Whether I had published a magazine article, lost five pounds, or cultivated a gorgeous dinner-plate dahlia, Jack believed in me, encouraged me, advised me, and became my Nashville surrogate “father.” Soon his wife, sons, and daughter-in-law felt like family to me.

One night Jack and his wife attended my husband’s “WannaBeatle” concert. Picture a slightly stooped elderly man with a hearing aid and tremor rocking out to “Back in the U.S.S.R.” After the concert, Jack complimented the electric guitarist for nailing an intricate riff. Earlier that year he attended my daughter’s harp debut and my husband’s pipe organ concert despite claiming to be nearly tone-deaf.

In short, I learned how to love others through Jack’s example: investing time to pray when he might rather read a book, attending a play or concert, choosing the perfect gift, offering praise and encouragement.

Unfortunately, Jack developed terminal cancer and our roles reversed. Now I was the one praying daily for a miracle. I completed a Med-line computer search hoping for a research trial somewhere that would cure him, but to no avail. I visited him in the hospital with a bouquet of my dinner-plate dahlias and offered medical advice to his sons. I whipped up a meal, including my much acclaimed strawberry triffle.

But Jack was slowly dying. He lost weight and  became so weak he could no longer attend Sunday school.  Before long, hospice nurses assisted with morphine.

While I E-mailed and called regularly, I couldn’t bear to see him like that: thin, bed-bound, and at times incoherent. I wanted to remember him the way he used to be. Before cancer. Before morphine drips. Before the greedy eyes of death taunted me.

What was there about dying people and death that made me so uncomfortable?  Truth be told, I’d rather tour a nuclear dump than stare into a coffin at a dead body. How I dreaded calling hours and funerals. Shouldn’t a doctor be comfortable with death?  I’d read the books and ushered more than a few patients to the other side in my twenty years as a doctor, but it never got easier.  As a Christian, I should be filled with joy that Jack would soon walk the golden streets of Heaven, free of cancer and pain. But instead, I was devastated to lose my dear friend and mentor. Praying for a miracle was less painful than the powerlessness of facing his death. I couldn’t do it. It was too depressing. Too morbid. Too awkward.

“You should visit him,” my conscience nagged, but fear eroded my courage. What would I say? “How are you doing, Jack?” (Duh! He’s dying and hooked up to morphine! How do you think he’s doing?) Okay, how about, “I’m praying for a miracle, but God hasn’t answered the way I wanted Him to.”  No, that’s like saying God has abandoned him.  What about, “I’ll see you on the other side.” Definitely not. Trite. Impertinent. I sighed, clueless of what to say or how to act.

I imagined myself standing at his bedside stiff as a telephone pole trying to dig up something, anything, to say, both of us heaving a giant sigh of relief when the awkward encounter was over. Some professional I was!

Of course, what I really wanted to say was, “Jack, it hurts me to see you so thin and frail and suffering in pain like this. You’ve been such a blessing to me and my family and I’ll miss you so much. Please don’t die, I need you down here.”

But if I spilled out my heart like a rupturing aneurysm, would I break down and sob and cry and carry on, clutching his arm and begging him not to die? Worse yet, if I fell apart and told him how much he meant to me, would his wife get the wrong impression that something tawdry or inappropriate had gone on between us? That would be terrible! What if I became so overcome with grief that he and his wife ended up consoling me, instead of me comforting them? Just what they needed on his deathbed– me falling apart at the seams.

So I didn’t go. I chickened out and listened to my fears.

But now I wish I’d told him how much his unconditional love and encouragement meant to me. How his corny jokes and funny stories made me laugh. How I respected his wisdom and spiritual insights. How I loved his gardening tips and Big Boy tomatoes. How I would miss our book discussions and debates about world affairs.

I wish I’d told him how he’d taught me to love others through his Christ-like example. How he’d blessed not only me, my husband and children, but our entire Sunday school class.

I wish I’d told him how much we’d miss him.

But I didn’t. Because it might become too emotional. Too sad. Too awkward.

Jack, if you can read this blog in Heaven, please forgive me and know how much I loved you. I’m sorry I abandoned you when you needed me most. But I know you have already forgiven me, because that’s the kind of person you are.

Reader, if there is someone in your life who has been a bulwark and anchor in your life, tell them before it’s too late. If you can’t muster the courage to do it eye-to-eye, write a letter. But one way or another, let them know. Don’t let them die without knowing how much they meant to you. Learn from my mistake.

Because I’ve learned the hard way there’s something worse than awkwardness:  regret.

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