The Thursday after Easter Sunday I was making rounds, and I came across a man sitting in a wheelchair by a table of the common room. I didn’t believe we had met before, certainly not on this unit, but there was something familiar about him I couldn’t place. This was not too unusual in a small town.
As I passed by, he reached out suddenly toward me. I could tell by his eyes that he was afraid, likely unsure of where he was or what was happening around him. He opened his mouth to speak, and closed it again, and opened again, but no sound came out. Grasping my hand, he squeezed it tightly.
“It’s alright,” I said softly, crouching down to eye level. “It’s alright. I’m a chaplain. I visit with patients here and offer support and prayer. Is there anything that I can pray about for you today?”
A spark of recognition seemed to flicker in his eyes. He looked at me, and for a brief moment the terror faded, and he looked imperious and proud, a man used to having authority. He opened his mouth to speak, but again no sound emerged. After a moment he closed it again, his jaw clenched. He released my hand and looked away.
Standing now closer to him, I could see his clothes were expensive and well-made, his nails trimmed and manicured, his hair well-styled. He had likely been a person of respect in the community, which was probably why he seemed so familiar. Although I could not place a name, I’m sure I had seen him at public gatherings or community events.
Even though I have seen it so many times, it’s always amazing what age and infirmity can do to a person. The star athlete, renowned for their peak physical condition, now laid so low they can’t lift their head off the pillow. The brilliant thinker, now unable to recall their own name or the names of their loved ones.
I remember one man talking about visiting his father at the end of his life. His father had always been strong, unshakable, and cruel. He had terrorized his family for years with his violent outbursts. Now, lying in a hospital bed, frail with cancer, tubes running from his arms… his son found himself pitying the man he had always feared, always hated. Even monsters look harmless in the face of death. How the mighty have fallen!
As I left the gentleman and made my way back to the nursing station, one of the nurses spoke in a quiet tone as I approached.
“Hard to believe, isn’t it? I never thought we’d see him here… and to see him like this, it’s crazy.”
“Who is he?” I asked. “I feel like I should know him; he seems familiar, but I just can’t place him.”
The nurse looked surprised. “Do you really not recognize him? It was all over the newspapers this weekend—I thought everyone knew.”
“It was Easter this past weekend,” I reminded her. “I tend to be busy with Easter services and celebration, and didn’t get around to checking the news.”
If I hoped my reply would elicit sympathy, I was disappointed. “Still,” she said, “I’m just surprised you didn’t hear. That’s Death.”
“Yeah, that’s Death.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in, and I looked back to the man again in shock. I could see it now. I had encountered Death many times before, always so imperious, so commanding… To see him now like this: decrepit, powerless, wasting away… it was no wonder I had not recognized him.
After a moment, I blurted out the only question in my mind. “What happened?”
The nurse frowned, “I don’t know all the details… they brought him into the ER early Sunday morning, and after a day or two in ICU they transferred him here for care.”
“Is he going to recover?”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t sound good. He’s on comfort care only now. He’s still alive, but it looks like he’s passing away.”
I had no words. Death and I had never been close… I had always found him cruel, and callous, and unwelcome… but I could not even begin to imagine a world without him. I had no words. The nurse must have noticed my shock, for after a moment she spoke again.
“I was surprised, too,” she said, “but I guess even Death has to die someday.”
I thought about those words as I drove back home that day. It was the same drive as always, but it seemed different that day for some reason. As I passed an old church building a small sign hanging outside caught my eye. I’m sure I had driven by the sign a number of times, but never really paid it much attention. It was a simple phrase, written in Greek and English. A part of an old Paschal hymn: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death.
“But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:20-26).
Rev. Caleb Larson serves as chaplain at LB Homes in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.