That Life and Death Thing

I’ve been thinking about my friend Rob, the one who died last week. And that means I’ve also been thinking a bit about death, and life.

Rob was a priest of the Anglican Church of Australia, as am I. He worked in parishes for his whole ministry, I have worked in chaplaincies for much of mine. There was a time when I was doing some chaplaincy training in a hospital. It was a children’s hospital, one of Australia’s finest. The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.

Things did now always go well. After all, it was a place of life and death. There was a little boy, about seven or eight years old. He had a brain tumour that started at the base of his brain and was working its way down his spinal column. Perhaps these days things are different, but in 1981 it was inoperable.

The boy was going to die. He was going to die the night I was called to his bedside. His parents could not face it, that final breath, and had disappeared. It was December and Christmas was looming. Nobody knew where they were and I was called to sit with the boy.

I held his hand. Almost lifeless. Both of us. His skin was grey, the colour of the water in the school paint jar. He didn’t move, didn’t open his eyes, didn’t acknowlege my presence, he only breathed, and that seemed so shallow as to be incapable of supporting life. And that is what it proved to be.

I have tears yet for that little boy.

It is twenty seven years since, and I still wonder how his parents are getting on. I never met them but for a moment I took their place, the place of comfort I hope, being mother and father to a tiny stranger.

My friend Rob had much life yet to live. That is our declaration. But what of this little boy and the many others like him who die before their time?

There’s a phrase that goes through my mind – “Our only legacy is the love we leave behind.” An older person has so much more opportunity to plant that legacy and see it growing before his death. But the little boy?

Perhaps it’s time I thought a bit more about that phrase. Perhaps it’s the love we have received that becomes our legacy, as much as the love we have given. There was a moment, a few hours at the end of a boy’s life, that I was able to give some comforting love in the place of those he loved.

Whatever his family might have of him in their memories, he still lives in mine.

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