Inner City Diary
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Preparing for death is an important part of life
June 1, 2003
The prognosis wasn’t good. Doctors suggested that Mike would not have long to live. His friends told me about his ongoing struggle with cancer, and I asked if he wanted me to visit. He called to arrange a meeting.

His wife, Terri, welcomed me into their home about two months ago. I waited in the sunroom and Mike slowly shuffled into the room. It had been a rough day. His breathing and speaking were laboured.

Words were few that day, but each was packed with meaning. We talked about life and death, fulfillment and frustration, faith and doubt, being tired of life and yet wanting to fight death.

During our talk he made a simple request. “When my time comes, would you do a little memorial service for family and friends? Nothing long, sappy or formal.”

Mike and I planned his funeral service. It seemed surreal to talk about preparing for death while still fighting to live. But these are not contradictory concepts. It’s a parable of all our lives. From the moment of our birth, we fight to live and simultaneously – though usually unconsciously – prepare for the day we die.

I couldn’t help but wonder how different the world would be if more people understood that.

In his early forties, Mike had learned more, accomplished and lived more than many people twice his age. Without exception, people marvel at the incredible range of Mike’s interests and his excellence in so many fields of endeavor.

Mike lived with aspirations to great things. He lived on purpose. Whether it was a doctorate from Harvard, drafting social and economic policy, or a hockey game, he gave it his all. His daughter commented she will always remember his injunction to “Do your best!”

He believed that to start with no higher aim than to be a realist would be the first step in becoming defeatist. There was something profoundly disappointing for him in condescending to the achievable.

We discussed how that philosophy applied to education, urban planning, zoning, building, crime prevention, community development, and public policy. He emphasized that the worst we can do is settle for the status quo, to go with the flow, to refuse to try to improve that which should be improved.

But Mike also lived with appreciation for little things. We eat, sleep, work, wait, watch TV, read papers, play sports, take walks. Most of our lives are occupied with minutia and details, not monumental tasks or heroic achievements. Mike understood that. His son reflected fondly on fun times during hunting trips – not economic policies or Harvard degrees.

Mike commented that he liked what we were doing downtown, confronting crime, deterioration and complacency in specific ways. “I’m going to make sure you get the book, ‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell.”

I’ve started reading the book. It stresses that huge changes come not in singular major acts or decisions, but rise from the congruence of seemingly minor acts, insignificant choices and other unappreciated factors.

Mike also lived with attention to love. He said he liked that verse about faith, hope and love, with the “greatest” being love. When faith wavers and hope fades, he commented that love seemed to be all that remained steady. Mike reflected fondly on Terri’s love and care for him and their love for each other as a family.

At the end of our visit, I asked if there was anything else on his mind.

“People keep telling me how much I’ve accomplished, how much they appreciate what I’ve done. But right now, those are just things which don’t seem very important. What I want more than anything else right now is just a sense of forgiveness and peace.”

Mike commented that he wasn’t much of a religious guy. He had some real problems with church, but he wasn’t a stranger to God. Looking at his eyes I knew his request for forgiveness was not about dealing with any particular sense of condemnation, but rather an honest and humble longing for a sense of God’s love and acceptance.

At the brink of eternity, we prayed together. More than anything else I do, my greatest privilege is to accompany a person as they encounter the love of their Creator. We prayed simply and sincerely for forgiveness and peace. There was no voice from heaven, no miraculous healing. As we opened our teary eyes, I looked at Mike. We both knew that God had answered his prayer.

Last weekend, I conducted his funeral service. Friends and family came to share comfort and memories. We are forced to bear our resentment of cancer, our loss of a friend.

But I’ve been reminded anew of the most important things in life.
Copyright 2003
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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