Unfinished Business

Gordon is in his 80s, with advanced metastatic cancer. He has moved to “comfort measures only,” but he retains a razor-sharp mind.  He was an engineer by trade but is a scientist by disposition:  he asks thought-provoking questions and follows the evidence where it leads him—including, in his case, to Christian faith.  In our first conversation, after sharing a story of a vision of heaven, he said, “Some people might call me crazy for believing in something like this.  Do you?”  I said, “If that is your experience, who am I or anyone else to argue with it?”  He replied, “It’s my truth.”

During that first conversation, Gordon spoke lovingly of his developmentally disabled daughter.  He had taken care of her for several years after his wife died, then helped her transition to the group home where she now lives.  He also briefly mentioned a son.  I knew from social work notes that his son had misappropriated funds intended for his daughter, and that Gordon had recently assigned power of attorney to a trusted niece to recover these assets and oversee care for his daughter.  I saw no opening to ask Gordon about this, and he did not go there, so I honored the dictum to “trust the patient to say what they need.”

When I look in on Gordon a few days later, he tells me he is in “incredible pain” and that he had just received morphine.  I return that afternoon to find him lying flat in bed, eyes only slightly open, but eager to resume with his theological questions.  We discuss a few, then the conversation takes a turn.

“You know how Catholics say that the only way a confession can be effective is if you confess to a priest?  What do the Protestants say?  Does a confession have to be made to another person?”

“There’s many kinds of Protestants, and I’m no expert.  But my personal belief as a Christian is no—I know of nothing in the Bible that says confession can’t be made directly to God.”  He nods.  “Still, some people find it meaningful to also share with another person.  Is there something on your heart?”

He stares off silently for several moments.  “No, there’s nothing I can do about it at this point anyway.”  He lifts his arms off his chest, slowly runs one hand over his other arm, then switches hands and repeats.  “I’m getting really old now.  My arms are so weak.  I can’t move my legs at all.  I’m in pain a lot of the time.  I’ve even lost my sense of humor.”  He smiles noticeably.

“I’m not buying that part about the sense of humor—you couldn’t hide that smile.”  He smiles again.  “But I hear you on the rest—I can see that it is true.”

“It is so much work just to stay alive right now.  But I need to do so until I’m sure my daughter’s money is returned to her, until I know she has what she needs to live on.  That’s what’s keeping me working at staying alive.”

“What are you hearing about how that is going?”

“I talked to my niece today, she said it is very close to getting done.”

“That’s good news—I’m sure that will be a relief to you.”  He nods.  His energy is dissipating, so I move to close.  “Gordon, when we spoke the first time, you told me about your daughter’s vision of heaven, and the comfort that it gave you about your own life after death.  Is that still comforting for you?”

“Yes, very.”

So we closed with a time of prayer:  honoring Gordon’s loving care for his daughter, asking for strength to conclude his unfinished business, for peace to accept what he cannot change, for the fulfillment of his vision of heaven—and with a shared smile, wishing God luck in answering all of his questions.

I learned early in my adult life that, within limits, the human will to live can push back the moment of death.  I was 20 and working on a project 2000 miles from home when my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and given six months to live.  My mom and I shared long phone calls over the few weeks it took to complete my project; I left to drive home the day it concluded.  Taking turns with my brother, also living on the west coast, we drove straight through in less than 48 hours.  Upon arrival we learned our mother’s health had deteriorated right after our departure, and, we were told, “she’s holding on by a thread, just waiting for you two to arrive.”  We hurried into her bedroom and said our good-byes.  She died that afternoon.

Stories like this are common in the literature, and in my experience.  The theme that runs through these stories is “unfinished business.”  Many people, upon receiving a diagnosis that sets clear limits on their longevity, are encouraged to “put their affairs in order.”  This means different things to different people, of course, and is easier said than done.  Not all items on a person’s “bucket list” can be checked off.  Difficult family conflicts, built up over many years, may be impossible to resolve in the time allowed.  As time grows shorter priorities often change.  If a desire seen as truly essential seems within reach, people like Gordon and my mother will put great effort into staying alive, and if it is accomplished will then let go and pass quickly.

But what about affairs that cannot be put in order, especially ruptured relationships that cannot be repaired?  I never learned the story of how Gordon’s relationship with his son broke down—the series of events that led to him battling his son in court while on his deathbed—but it had to have been painful.  I can only speculate, but Gordon may have felt remorse over some of his own actions that contributed to this situation, and in his questions about confession he may have been seeking a way to find forgiveness.  I take no umbrage that Gordon didn’t choose to share his thoughts with me, but I hope he felt clear to take it up directly with the God he loved so much.

A lifetime is never enough time to take care of all of our unfinished business.  The sooner we get started, while time seems abundant, the less we will have to put in order when time is short. But it is still not enough—there are likely always matters about which we feel, “there’s nothing I can do about it at this point.”  We need to make peace with the knowledge that some of our most cherished hopes will remain unfulfilled when we die, and find a way to be reconciled with ourselves, and with our creator, for the work we could not manage to complete.

7 thoughts on “Unfinished Business

  1. Thank you, Greg, for once again sharing such precious and valuable experiences and reflection on them. Also, Michael and I will be in Portland for a few days the week of April 10 and I would be so happy to see you! In friendship, Stephanie

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s