For years and for complicated reasons, my friend of solitary temperament suffered privately with cancer and its harsh remediations. Pride, pain, denial, fatigue—all contributed to her debilitation—and fear, toward the end, once the medical professionals assaulted her denial and spoke only of comfort.
She said she wasn't afraid of death but of dying, not of meeting her Maker but of traversing the valley, crossing the bar. She had come to the end of her human resources and knew she had to throw herself toward the mercy of God, or maybe it was a more passive letting herself fall into the abyss of grace.
In an attempt to alleviate her fear, I left home somewhat impulsively at 7:30 in the morning to visit her, newly embedded in a residential hospice. She was heavily medicated, not speaking or eating, and hardly drinking, receiving no tubal hydration. I expected to return home within the hour, but when I found her alone, I stayed until early afternoon, when her family arrived.
I sang hymns and gospel songs that I had memorized as a child, sometimes improvising new lines. Though it was Lent, I sang the off-season Gloria and the all-season Sanctus: "Holy, holy, holy, Lord." In an alcove, I found coffee refills. I hadn't thought to eat breakfast, and by 10:30 a.m., I was hungry. In silences between songs, I carried on a conversation with myself.
Just go out and find a snack.
No. Remember Jesus' Gethsemane line: "Can you not watch with me for one hour?" Or with a dying friend for one morning?
I held off, claiming the consciously chosen hunger as a form of discipline, though I wasn't sure why my discomfort held any meaning beyond my body's chemistry.
I've fasted only a few times in my life, never more than a day—and that time only because a friend suggested fasting as a sort of spiritual bargaining tool: God, give me what I want. Please. I'm serious here. Don't you see?
But that's not what this was about. I wasn't begging God for anything, not even for my friend's life. Nor was I girding myself against temptation, as the Gospel writer says Peter in Gethsemane should have.
I sat with her for long, early-hour stretches in the final week of her life, though each day after the first I grabbed a breakfast muffin before I left home. Perhaps fasting the first day prepared me for this short-term service, just like Jesus' 40-day endurance set the pace for his ministry.
In those morning watches, my friend never spoke, though she nodded recognition. When I replaced my pathetic voice with a John Rutter choral recording, she turned her head toward the heavenly strains: "O God Our Help . . ."
Tonight, after a Holy Thursday evening service—just three weeks after my friend's death—my fellow parishioners will take part in an all-night prayer vigil. For one-hour segments, a faithful few will sit in or pace around the sanctuary, in sight of the Communion elements representing Jesus' presence. The tradition holds. The sign-up roster is full. We're acting out the Gethsemane scene as disciples who intend to stay awake. We're watching with the fearful dying, waiting for the dawn.
Evelyn Bence is author of Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality, forthcoming from Upper Room Books.