Archives for December 2013


People like me don’t meet people like Raymond.

In my leafy suburb, we like to keep our Raymonds on the other side of Eight Mile, or safely behind the tv screen.  We see them on our neat crime dramas as the drug dealer, the young man in trouble with the law, and the misunderstood young man.  Young African-American men, with no job, no education, hanging out on the streets, being raised by a grandmother.  We see the outlines of their lives so often that we think we know them.

Raymond was twenty when I met him, as his hospice chaplain.

He lived in a nursing home, surrounded by older people, needing more care than anyone could give him at home.  Anger was his usual state.  Before I went to his room the first time, I asked the nursing home social worker about him.  “Oh,” she said, looking me over.  “Oh,” she said again with some dismay.  She started to say something, and then stopped.  She shared with me that none of the staff liked to go into his room.  He yelled and called them bitches and ho’s, screaming obscenities until they went away in frustration.

“Great,” I thought, and got ready for the anger.

Instead, there was silence.  His room was dark, curtains pulled tight and lights off.  In the dim light, I went over to the bed and told him who I was, and that I’d come to see how he was doing.  Silence.  “Is there anything you need?” I finally stammered out, unnerved.  Silence.  The same with the next visit, and the next.

I’ve stopped visiting people before, when they ask me to, or when I know I’m not doing them any good.  I could have quit seeing Raymond anytime.  He wouldn’t have cared.  But something in him kicked up a stubborn streak in me.  Raymond was dying, on our hospice program until the end.  Surely, as the chaplain, I owed him more than more anger, at the end of his life.

So I kept visiting his room, usually first thing in that nursing home, so I could soothe my uncertainty with more pleasant visits afterward.   Each time I asked if he wanted anything.  Finally he asked for a magazine, and I started to see how bored he must be.  Because he yelled and cursed so much, no one would take him out of his room.  Twenty four hours a day, in the same bed, looking at the same wall.

Raymond began to tell his story, little by little.

“I was where I shouldn’t have been,” he said, recalling the shooting that left him partly paralyzed.  His overwhelmed parents, who split up years before, didn’t know what to do with a seventeen year old with a disability.  Without much education, they didn’t know how to help him with the medical system, so they let him make his own choices about rehab and treatment.  When he got discouraged, he stopped going.  Staying in bed all the time, he lost more and more mobility.

In the early days after the shooting, he could use a wheelchair and play wheelchair basketball.  He could get out and see friends, and I wondered how he seemed to them, his life so changed.  Is that why he quit trying?  His ability ebbed away when he stopped working at it.  Then bedsores came, and then infections, and then the day when his family couldn’t take care of him anymore.  That led to the nursing home, and life surrounded by older people.  And the raging anger that this was going to be his life forever.

But not forever.  The infections were slowly taking over.  Like his older neighbors, Raymond was coming to the end of his life.

His questions changed.  “When am I going to get out of here?” evolved into “what am I going to do while I’m here?”  “Why me?” moved toward “when am I going to die?”  In the quiet of his room, he started to parcel out his story.

Slowly, he started to talk about God, and what God might think of him.  He asked to be baptized, and his aunt’s church made that happen for him.  When the infections took over completely, he went to the hospital, and I saw him there, in another empty room.  This one, though, was filled with his new serenity.  One morning I drove to the hospital, and found his bed neatly made, the bedside table empty and sterilized.  Raymond had died in the night.

Calling his grandmother, I heard her tears through the phone, and I know she heard mine, too.  Raymond had touched my heart beyond any category I had for him.

In the silence, all of us are mysteries.  But in the spaces between us, connection sneaks in.  Light comes into the cracks in our walls, and we illuminate the way for each other.