I arrived early in the morning to begin my day as chaplain on duty. After checking in I made my way to the pediatric chronic care unit to check on Martin. Martin was thirteen years old and, due to many birth complications, had spent his entire life in and out of the hospital. He had fought fiercely and bravely in the midst of countless obstacles, but it was clear his strength for battle was waning. And so, on a midwinter’s Sunday morning, the vigil began.
As the day wore on he would struggle increasingly for each breath. His mother sat loyally at his bedside, full of pain, full of love. Throughout the day other visitors would come and go, but there she remained. In between other calls I spent as much time as possible with Martin and his mom. For the first time in my life, I got an inkling of what ministry of presence means. My body in this space was all I had to offer. Painfully insufficient. Yet, I felt compelled to remain. As I spent time at his bedside Martin’s mother re-lived in words, through tears and laughter, the ways in which this son of hers had brought joy and life to all who knew him. She had learned from him the lesson of resiliency in the midst of challenges. What others might see as a lifetime of burden she saw as a lifetime of privilege and honor.
Their struggles had been expensive, not only in terms of money, but also in relationship currency. This was painfully obvious when, at dusk, Martin’s father walked in with his present wife and their children. The look on the man’s face was a mixture of shame and helplessness and regret. The kind that comes from missed opportunity. My heart broke for this young boy, for his mother, and for his father. There was a suffocating stillness in the room as we listened to Martin’s strain in each breath. I stood with the rest. Useless. Waiting. Unable to move the mountain in my throat.
The energy abruptly shifted in the room when an overgrown adolescent filled the doorway with his presence. The beloved big brother I had heard about, the only person in Martin’s life who treated him like a normal kid. His mom had told me Martin and his brother would wrestle and laugh for hours. The young man was about seventeen years old and he had the build and posture of a football tackle. He was visibly uncomfortable in this hospital atmosphere, embodying the proverbial bull in a china shop. Something about his presence made me feel small in stature and also in heart. He made eye contact with no one. Not his mother, his father, his step-siblings, nor me.
Moving forward, his body cut a path directly to the bed where his brother lay. The tough young mountain of a man picked up Martin and cradled him in his arms as gently as any mother ever could. He made his way over to a rocking chair. A chair that held purpose the rest of us had failed to recognize. He sat down and began to rock his little brother. He didn’t speak and Martin didn’t try to. They rocked in silence. The quiet that a few minutes before seemed to rob the room of breath, now provided a sweet blanket of comfort for these two young souls. For another half hour or so the only sound heard was the slight creaking of the rocking chair under the weight of these two brothers and Martin’s decreasing breaths.
From where I was standing I could see Martin’s eyes looking up at his brother. It was pure beauty. Not the kind of beauty that comes from adornment. Not the kind of beauty you see in a painting. More like the raw beauty of nature. Beauty that humbles.
Without fanfare, Martin quietly sighed and released his last breath. It was finished. The creaking of the rocking chair ceased and it seemed as if all of eternity rested in this one moment. Slowly Martin’s brother stood up and carried him back to the bed, ever so gently laying him down. It was only then that this boy in a man’s body buried his head into his little brother’s chest and cried the tears of a hurting child. His pain pierced all hearts present. Only when his tears were emptied did he stand up and turn, again looking at no one, and quietly walk out of the room.
I’m still processing the experience of that evening, now long ago. Something holy happened in that room. A moment where pain and beauty came together and somehow revealed something of God’s glory. There he was before me, Jesus, with the strong arms, rocking Martin into eternity. And, Jesus, in the complete vulnerability of Martin, trusting those arms for the journey. I witnessed something of incarnation. Dust and divine coming together in the power of Love.
Something to chew on….