In the first days of a bygone June, I visited a family as their hospice chaplain. I wouldn’t have guessed the patient – a husband and father – had cancer and would die before that summer’s end. He was puttering around his garden when I drove up. That would be the only time I saw him outside.
A visit or two later, he remained on the couch, and eventually couldn’t leave his hospital bed. His loving wife was attentive, sweet natured, and always exhausted. During many of my visits, I focused more on her needs.
With her worries and fears. With her requests for prayer. With holding her hand while the hospice nurse adjusted the patient’s medication or the home health aide gave him a sponge bath.
Their adult kids rotated staying overnight, giving their mother a little relief. One of the children was never present, but everyone mentioned “John.” John was in prison. It was nothing serious, except that incarceration for several years was always serious.
His mother said John was a good son, a loner with a temper, and a quiet guy who seemed a magnet for trouble. He was soon to be released, with the family wondering if he’d make it home to see his father. Sure, John called his parents, but a farewell in person trumped a phone call six ways from Sunday.
There was another problem.
One of John’s brothers still had a restraining order against him. They couldn’t occupy the same room. As I recall, their mother described the sibling relationship as “love and hate” and “both of their faults.”
Families, poor or rich, small or large, are dysfunctional. Of course, labeling any family as dysfunctional seems redundant. In my experience, most families don’t “operate normally or properly.” Those who love you the most also know the worst about you.
Grudges can be hoarded like gold coins. The details of old resentments may fade, but continue to create rifts as wide and muddy as the Mississippi.
The brothers’ disagreements broke her heart.
John was released from prison while his father was still alive.
Several of the children, including the brother John had conflicts with, had become reluctant about visiting their father. It’s easy to criticize or judge if that happens, but it can be depressing to return to your parents’ home when you’ve said tearful goodbyes a dozen times.
It’s painful when a father’s body – once vibrant, once strong – is ruined. A month before, there were conversations and reminiscing, but now Dad was grimly silent. And the other children had their families, along with careers and nonstop obligations.
I arrived at the home just after the patient died.
I was present when John, who’d been behind bars a hundred miles away in the prior week, softly told his mother that he’d take care of his father ... of her beloved husband.
In the still, fragile seconds after the death, John approached the hospital bed in the middle of the living room. He tenderly bathed the man who gave him life. A Hollywood stereotype of a convict, John sported swirls of tattoos undulating over weight-room biceps. His thick shoulder muscles rippled as he gently hoisted and adjusted his father’s body. Then he dressed his dad before the funeral home staff arrived to remove the “remains.”
His mother sobbed in the hallway, mostly averting her eyes.
The other children were on the way.
John had muttered to me that he wanted his father to look as nice as possible before his mother re-entered the room, before his brothers and sisters – save one – would arrive.
I have no idea what happened to John after that day. Did he and his brother mend their relationship? I like to think so, though complicated families are often permanently ... complicated.
It’s likely that months later, ever the hothead, John would again be in trouble with the law. But for a few treasured moments, a son tended to his father’s final needs, cleaning and dressing his cancer-wrecked body.
Years later now, in the montage of my memory, I see the patient – the father and husband – as he sauntered across his front yard and watered his verdant garden. And I can recall John, leaning over his dad’s body, bathing him with warm water as tears streaked his own cheeks.
Aren’t all families dysfunctional? Yes. And also, in unexpected times, blessed.
Larry Patten is a writer and minister, and currently works at Hinds Hospice. He maintains www.larrypatten.com (musings on faith) and www.hospice-matters.com (on dying, death, and grief). A golden retriever and two randomly affectionate cats own him, and his wife puts up with him. The Good Men Project (goodmenproject.com) originally published this article. Patten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.