It's amazing how quickly community develops in special circumstances. Recently the uniqueness of one man's last days served as catalyst for a true community, which, now that he has passed on, will cease to exist.
Don broke his neck as a 14-year-old and lived as a quadriplegic for half a century. Despite his disability he finished high school and college, did graduate work, and lived a productive, fulfilled life.
In the past year, Don's lungs began to fail, a series of infections weakened him, and he drew near death. A group of us gathered around Don, our unifying purpose to ease his dying process.
Foremost was an only niece, who had received constant nurture from her uncle after the premature death of her father, Don's brother. The almost palpable love between uncle and niece, as she nursed him through his final weeks, provided the glue for all who joined them during those days.
The attending physician, a longtime friend of Don's, gave of himself extensively during this period: daily visits to the sick man's home or the hospital; contact by phone in moments of crisis; and an extraordinary role in providing his patient with appropriate spiritual assistance near the end.
The good doctor asked if I would form part of this unique community as a minister of the gospel. Although Don claimed no particular Christian tradition, he was deeply spiritual and wanted the opinion of a priest regarding the appropriateness of turning off life-sustaining machines when these had become entirely artificial. The dying man's concern in this regard was very practical. He wanted to leave behind a substantial scholarship fund for quadriplegics at the university he had attended, and feared depleting the money in the fund with technological efforts to keep him "alive."
Others who joined our little community included the next-door neighbor whose son had always cut Don's lawn; nurses and attendants in the hospital's critical care unit, who did the comforting tasks that only such skilled personnel can handle; the physician's wife and daughter, who let Don know how much his life had spoken to theirs.
One can easily imagine how well this little community functioned as we carried out our ministry to this dying brother. Phone calls, consultations, comments about his living and dying, day-to-day updates on his ever-worsening condition all flowed back and forth among us. Those more directly involved-doctor, niece, hospital personnel-alerted the rest to the moments when we should be present to him.
Our little group received many blessings throughout this special time. Almost in the same breath with which he told me that his only regret was not doing more with his life, Don declared that he was dying at peace. To his niece he confided his wishes regarding the ever-nearing funeral-a reading from the Dalai Lama, "Amazing Grace" (in a jazz rendition). The medical people got clear indications from Don that they had kept him comfortable throughout. Then he died.
The community has now dissolved, our mission fulfilled. No amount of "I'll give you a call" or "let's stay in touch" could mask the end of a ministry that was the sole reason for our coming together. We sense that there is little regret among us. Don received much from us, and gave more. The memories of a courageous man with whom we walked in his final days will hold us together until we see him again. Not a bad legacy for the instantaneous and temporary community we formed.
JOE NANGLE, O.F.M., former outreach director at Sojourners, is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.