For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘dying

Benediction by Kent Haruf, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, 258 pp.

BenedictionThis book came in a big stack of like-new hand-me-downs from my mother-in-law’s next door neighbor. She and I share a love of reading, and she knows my preference for literary fiction and stories about women. This is one of the best ones she has ever passed my way. I’d never heard of Kent Haruf, but I want to hear much more from him.

Benediction is the story of a dying man, Dad Lewis, his wife, his daughter, and the community that holds him in his dying days. The book begins in the doctor’s office with the terminal diagnosis, and follows through until his death. It offers his own perspective, revealing secrets from his life that will remain hidden forever once he dies. Some are guilt-ridden, others are acts of compassion, most are a mix of the two, like the memories of most human lives. The story unpacks the relationship with his wife and daughter and estranged son, sorting through the past and the future that will not be.

Meanwhile, there is a secondary cast of characters–the community around Dad Lewis and his family. There are neighbors and church friends, even the pastor and his family. While Dad Lewis and his family are arrested by death and dying, their lives go on–teens explore sexuality, children enter families, new friendships develop, careers unravel. The world outside the Lewis home goes on without them.

As someone who spends a lot of time with people who are dying and their families, I can testify that this story has a depth of truth and insight into end-of-life situations . From the awkward visits to the easy ones, from the hard truth-telling conversations to the meaningless ones, Haruf captures what it’s like to be with the dying.

The thing that most captivated me, however, was the voice Haruf develops in his writing. It is a sparse style, with much dialogue and little to get in the way. Its descriptions are muted, as though there was a slight haze over everything, which seems entirely appropriate to the situation. The prose is simple, elegant and beautiful.

One of my favorite sections, of course, is from the pastor.

I’m finished as a minister. I haven’t done much good. … People don’t want to be disturbed. They want assurance. They don’t come to church on Sunday morning to think about new ideas or even the old important ones. They want to hear what they’ve been told before, with only some small variation on what they’ve been hearing all their lives, and then they want to go home and eat pot roast and say it was a good service and feel satisfied. (193)

That’s how I feel a lot of the time in ministry, and it felt good to see that named and reflected on the page–however depressing it is.

Benediction is a beautiful novel, and not nearly as melancholy as the topic makes it sound. The characters are endearing and real, so you can imagine them in their town having these conversations with one another. I recommend it highly.

 

communion-table1He was one of the great saints of the church, and he was dying.

I had been visiting him and his wife in their home for several years, because his health had been too poor to come to church. Every time, they prepared an elaborate meal, setting out the best silver and china, special candles and napkins for Holy Communion at the dining room table. I told them over and over that they did not need to go to such trouble, but they insisted. Because of the fancy meal, my visits would often last four hours or more, yet still he protested that we didn’t have enough time.

I could tell that the elaborate preparations had become a burden. As he grew weaker, I urged him to put aside the extravagant meal and just let me pay a pastoral call. He refused to let me come unless he could meet his own high standards of hospitality. If he was unable to cook, he would not let me visit. We talked on the phone, but I did not see him for several months.

When he called me from the doctor’s office, it was late Epiphany, February-cold. He never used a cell phone, so I was startled to hear his voice. There were no more treatments left. He would be starting hospice care. They were preparing to tell their children. A man of deep faith, he was not afraid of dying, but he was shocked that his life, even after nearly 90 years, was coming to an end. He protested that he just didn’t have enough time.

The next day, I reached his wife on the phone. She immediately acquiesced to my request to visit, with only the holy bread and cup for our meal. When I arrived, we embraced, but he grew agitated that he was not able to provide his regular hospitality. “I just wish we could sit down at the table. I don’t have anything set. This is not how it should be.” I tried to reassure him that I was there to minister to him, as he had ministered to so many others before. My words seemed a formality, but his distress was real, as if an admission of his deteriorating condition.

Then his wife spoke: “After Easter,” she said. “After Easter. We’ll talk about it after Easter.”

It wasn’t even Ash Wednesday. We doubted he would live through Lent, much less regain enough strength to host a meal again. Yet her words comforted him, and me. After Easter. He calmed, and we spoke at length of life and death, of love and faith. The reminder of resurrection freed us to face the reality of his condition. Easter was more than a date on the calendar, it was the promise of eternity.

I returned every week after, twice a week towards the end. At every visit, he would speak of the meal we would share. “After Easter,” his wife and I replied. “After Easter,” he echoed.

He died a month later, kneeling beside his hospital bed in a posture of prayer. We buried him on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

I always miss him this time of year. We never did have enough time. Whenever I miss him, his hospitality, his faithful example, the meals we shared, I think to myself, “After Easter.” We shall sit together at the resurrection table, where Christ himself is host, with all the time in eternity to share. After Easter.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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