By Norris Burkes Oct 25 2019
If you walked with me down the egg-white hallway of St. Joseph Hospital in Stockton, California, I could take you into the room where I met the man who inspired my retirement.
While I don’t remember his name, I will never forget the impression he left on me.
It was a fall afternoon in 2015 when I walked through the east wing making my room-by-room introductory visits. My catholic employer required me to visit every new admission within 24 hours. I accomplished that on most days, but some were impossible.
This day I was trying to do the impossible—make 12 visits by the end of my shift. I nicknamed this necessity “speed dating.”
If you’re unfamiliar with the term “speed dating,” imagine musical chairs at a restaurant or coffee house. Eligible singles assemble at tables around the room and rotate in timed intervals to meet potential partners.
With this analogy in mind, you might imagine me introducing myself to patient after patient, trying to make a quick assessment as to what spiritual support I might offer.
But on this day, I was the one to receive some very needed spiritual support.
As I pushed open the last door on the hallway, I found an elderly female patient lying in a darkened room. I spoke to her, but she seemed to be under heavy sedation. Since I couldn’t offer much support, I made a pivot in hopes of ending a long day.
Instead, my exit was blocked by the lanky silhouette of an elderly man standing in the doorway.
“Hello,” I said, “I’m Norris Burkes, the hospital chaplain.”
The man moved across the room to greet me, introducing himself with a broad smile and a twinkle in his eyes. I don’t remember his name, but his build and his demeanor brought “Mr. Rogers” to mind.
Mr. Rogers told me the patient was Mrs. Rogers and proceeded with her story. She was 75, he 86. It was their second marriage and he’d tried to make her happy during their ten-years of matrimony, but from the beginning it seemed to him that she was prepping to die.
She’d struggled with the typical things of old age, a bad back, memory issues, and poor eyesight, and the doctor visits became more frequent. “It’s as if,” he said, “that she was always searching for something more serious, like she needed a better reason to die.”
“Depression can hit hard in the elderly,” I said.
Mr. Rogers nodded at my conjecture, so I said more.
“I see you’ve decided to make her a DNR,” referring to the medical order “Do Not Resuscitate.” Since it’s part of my job to clarify DNR to families, I added, “So if her heart stopped right now, we would do nothing to restart it.”
“Yup. It’s what she stated in her living will.”
Hoping to affirm him some, I added, “It’s good that she planned for this moment.”
“I suppose it’s a good idea to plan for death, but my wife seemed to make death her plan.” He said. “All she talked about was dying.”
Although a bit rehearsed, he wisely quipped, “If you’re not planning to live, you are planning to die.”
I agreed with caution, aware that I was hearing a one-sided story about my patient. Still, the man seemed fit, certain and thriving. Even with his own death likely close, he proclaimed to be living his life to the fullest.
After about twenty minutes, we both began walking to the door, ending our visit.
“Do you drive yourself here?” I asked.
“No, no.” he said.
Oh, good,” I said, expecting a man of his age to have given up driving.
“I keep the car in the garage. It’s just four miles.”
I squinted to signal I wasn’t following his meaning.
“I rode my bike here. I only drive if it’s raining.”
Suddenly, the man’s life philosophy came into sharper focus.
I had stopped riding my bike a few years before out of safety concerns, but this octogenarian wasn’t planning on braking his bike—or his life. He was still going full speed.
Looking back on that visit now, Mr. Rogers’ influence is clear. Within a year of meeting him, my wife and I sold our house to embark on three years of travel. While we are back into home ownership, I’ve never forgotten Mr. Rogers’ inspiration to make life my plan and accept death only when it finally comes.
The best part is that after my wife read this man’s story, she said she’s planning to keep up with me.
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