Note: I wrote the following on March 15 after a visit with a friend in the hospital, thinking that it would be the last time I saw him this side of heaven. He defied the odds and remained with us for nearly two more months, allowing me the opportunity to visit him again. Still, I share the following as originally written in memory of and with thankfulness for the friend whose funeral I just attended today. He will be missed.
There have been very few times in my 56 years when I’ve had the chance to say a proper farewell to someone who was about to pass from this life to the next. The first occasion was in the final days of my sweet sister’s life in 1995 before cancer took its toll. I will always remember the private moment of being alone with her in her bedroom, holding her hand, telling her I loved her and how proud of her I was, and giving her a final kiss. She couldn’t speak words back to me, but I know I saw a slight smile on her lips. In the presence of others that weekend, she said, “Well, hello, Mamaw” – a reference to our grandmother who had passed away less than two months earlier, making us all wonder what she was experiencing as she transitioned between this life and the one to come.
Tonight I said goodbye to an older friend from church. His life dramatically changed a matter of weeks ago with a diagnosis of leukemia and a series of medical incidents that abruptly took him from an active life to one coming quickly to an end. My wife sent me a text on my way home from work telling me that we needed to go to the hospital when I got home because time was limited.
At the hospital, my friend was alert, lucid, engaged in meaningful conversation, and had a handshake with his right hand as strong as an ox, while his left laid lifeless – a recent development in his rapid physical deterioration. In a moment like that, there is neither time nor reason to skirt the issue at hand, no sense in pretending you’ll see each other again in a few days, no reason to pray for healing or to give empty wishes of getting well. In that moment, it is right and good to acknowledge that earthly life is nearing an end, and that it’s alright. That is certainly what my friend was telling his visitors.
My friend has had a glimpse of what is in store for him once he passes from this life to the next. What he has seen and heard and experienced in recent days as he has walked that fine line between this life and the next has given him absolute assurance of what is to come. Instead of others trying to comfort him, he is the one spending his last days comforting and assuring others, providing hope, and anticipating a life eternal that is more beautiful and indescribable than he could place into words. I believe in the reality of what he has seen and in the conversations he has had with Jesus to pave the path he must follow during his final days. He is ready to go whenever his Lord takes him.
It was a holy moment to acknowledge in that final conversation the greatness of our God, our complete reliance on Him, and gratitude that we serve such a wonderful Savior. It was gut-wrenching but important to tell him that I loved him, that he was a good man and that I had the deepest respect for him. It was good to hear his kind words to me, recalling the time I asked him if he would be willing to serve as a deacon. It was bittersweet to walk out the door saying goodbye, knowing I would not see him again this side of heaven, yet knowing that we both understood what I meant when I said, “I will see you again.”
As I think back on the 60 hours I’ve worked this week, on the many things done and undone on my task list, on how I spent my time, I am reminded that as wonderful and fulfilling as this life can be, this is but a shadow of something far more that we are meant to experience. I left the hospital thinking, “Now that is reality. That is important. That is what this life should be about because ultimately this life is only a prelude to the eternal one to come.”
I am thankful for my friend. I am thankful for his faith and how he demonstrated it in his final days. I am thankful that I had a chance to say a proper goodbye.
As I write this looking at a screen blurred by tear-filled eyes, I will simply say “Until we meet again, my friend…”