Loyal was admitted to hospice with lung cancer when he was seventy-six years old. He was thin with silver-gray hair combed straight back. His typical dress was a solid-color oxford dress shirt, tucked into his khaki pants, held up by suspenders. He sat with perfect posture, reflective of a man of discipline. When I asked Loyal what it was like to have cancer, he replied, “I feel like I’m out of the stream of life. People don’t handle that word ‘cancer’ very well, so they don’t handle you very well either. But I used to be in the stream of life. I owned and operated my own trucking company. I had several trucks and drivers and we transported produce from the south to the north. When I was in my prime I was a prizefighter in St. Louis; and I fought back when you fought every Saturday night for ten dollars a fight. And I’ve been knocked down, but I’ve never been knocked out. I’ve always thought that life wasn’t very interesting without a challenge. But all my life I looked for challenge in all the wrong places; and it cost me my first wife and my children. I wasn’t saved until I was seventy; and since then I’ve found that there’s nothing like trying to understand the heart, mind and will of God. I get a kick out of it! I only wish I’d known sooner. I’ve learned so much, but now there’s no one who wants to listen. I don’t blame them; but knowledge isn’t supposed to be lost, it’s supposed to be passed on.” I promised Loyal, “I’m here and I’ll listen! And I’ll pass it on.”
A few weeks later, in mid-conversation, as if suddenly remembering something, Loyal abruptly stood up, clutched his walker and said, “I’ll be right back.” He slowly and carefully hobbled across the living room floor. He held onto his walker with his left hand and pulled back the curtain to his bedroom with his right. He disappeared behind the curtain and emerged about five minutes later with an old book, with a tattered black cloth cover, tucked under his arm. He held it out and said, “I want you to have this.” The hardback cover was attached on the inside by strips of transparent, yellowing packing tape; and on the inside cover page was written, “From Loyal”. The title of the book was “The True Vine and its Branches”, by Rev. Edward Leen. Loyal said, “I think you’ll appreciate it. You’ll find yourself coming back to it time and time again. I have. Now the fellow who wrote this book may not be of the same persuasion as you, but don’t miss the gems by disqualifying the source.”
A few more weeks later Loyal became bedridden; and even though we both knew that his days were numbered, neither of us came right out and acknowledged it; we didn’t need to. As people frequently do, when they know their days are numbered, they become real and transparent. After all, there’s no longer any reason to play games or pretend. Loyal reflected upon his life and confessed some past sins and declared, “It’s all true. So I guess you’re probably going to write me off now aren’t you?” I’m telling you, it can be disarmingly uncomfortable to watch tears run down a seventy-six year old man’s face. I shamefully admit that I was somewhat taken aback; for I had concocted an idealized figment of Loyal as a man, as a person. After a time of awkward silence, I replied, “No, I’m not going to write you off! I’m not going to miss the gems by disqualifying the source.” After all, who in the world was I to cast the first stone; (John 8: 1-11) and who was I to judge another man’s servant?
“Who are you to judge another man’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:4)
Loren Hardin is a hospice social worker at Southern Ohio Medical Center and can be reached at [email protected] or at 740-356-2525