I was 20 years old when I met Rev. Paul Henderson, then chaplain of Episcopal Church Home in Buffalo, NY. Father Paul, as the staff and residents called him, was a older and slight man with an incredible wit and sharp tongue. He also had the wisdom of age, a heart of gold, the compassion of the divine, and a flair for connecting with people of all walks of life through his humor and humility. At the time, I was not Episcopalian nor did I know anything other than the fundamentalist teachings of my youth that no longer seemed relevant to my life. I worked in the activities and recreation department of a nursing home, and I was working on my undergraduate degree in social work. At that time, I had no idea that I would return to this same nursing facility several years later as the Director of Social Services and take on even more experiences and responsibility, nor did I know that I would companion the last days of life of many people. Never did I imagine that I would help the grieving transition to live in a world marked by loss as well as growth. And, I had no idea when I first met this small, wiry aging chaplain the role that he would play in helping shape the course of my career. I had not taken those steps yet, and those chapters of my life had yet to be written.
On this day, before all these other events were to come to pass, I was a young worker helping move chairs in the dining hall so that Father Paul could hold Holy Eucharist on Wednesdays, as was his custom in the skilled nursing facility. Holy Eucharist was also held on Sunday in the lovely old chapel, but many of our less mobile residents could not make that journey. So, the 4th floor dining hall became our mid-week cathedral. It truly did, too, right down to the adult care facility altar guild members who would roll in the portable altar and set it to perfection with flowers, candles, and linens.
I always liked working this event as a part of my activities job. Somehow, the space that had served breakfast a couple hours earlier became a quiet worship space, in a way that was authentic and transformative. Father Paul would welcome every person…every nurses aid, nurse, housekeeper, janitor, dietary worker, resident, family, visitor, stranger…to God’s table. I learned in this space that all truly were welcome. Sometimes, I received communion in that space myself, which seemed a bit odd at first, and then not odd at all. Father Paul was the linking thread that made this not a health care center…but a home…to its residents. Through wit and wisdom, he built a community. We all respected him.
Father Paul also made it clear to the staff that he was to be called in the event of any nursing home residents’ imminent or actual death. The nursing facility was his parish, and he knew and held dear each member of the community. We had a very formal ritual around death that differed from any facility I have ever worked at since. He would come in at any hour and keep vigil with the dying, and in death he would companion the body first to the chapel and then in a prayerful procession reciting prayers to the hurse or other transport vehicle. No one who died was alone. He would minister to grieving families, too, but his true gift was with the dying person. He had presence, and regarded dying as a holy experience. I only saw him angry twice: the first, at morning rounds when it was announced that a resident had died the night before and he had not been called. The charge nurse shrugged off his rebuff by saying, “it was late, and you’re old and need your rest…we didn’t want to wake you.” A string of expletives directed to nurse, the Director of Nursing and Administrator insured no nurse ever made that mistake…or made such a patronizing decision…ever again. Ever. The next time I saw him angry was years later, when he was forced to retire from his position at age 72. That didn’t ultimately stop him, either.
From the time of the nursing staff outburst, I had started to develop a fascination with Father Paul’s dedication to the dying. I asked him once why that particular aspect of his ministry was so important to him. “It’s Holy Ground” he told me. “No one needs to be afraid, or alone. It’s simply my privilege to be there to accompany their journey. We all deserve that” He was a rare soul, someone who could be so close with death so often, neither becoming emotionally entrenched nor hardened. I deeply admired that about him.
Maybe he saw some similar spark in me, or maybe my questions gave away my interest. Maybe he intuitively knew that I had already watched family and friends walk this journey: my great uncle to a drunk driving accident, my great aunt to painful scleroderma, my other great aunt to an easier slipping away after a life of prayerful living, the murder/suicide of my neighbors, the sudden death of my favorite teacher, the friend I loved who was now dying. These were the journeys of my own spirit that I held inside. A few days later, he saw me in the hall and simply said, “Agnes doesn’t have long, will you come help me.” And, I became willing to walk this holy ground as a part of my job, too. I learned the dynamics and importance of ritual around dying. I found myself able to stay present, to build connection, to bear witness to the final moments of living. I was becoming a social worker, not a priest, and so the way I connected was different. But, being humanly present is inherently spiritual and implicitly therapeutic. My time with the families of the dying was particularly important to me, to know when to be present and when to step aside. When there was no family, I took on the role of the one who could be present. Sometimes, I even came in off shift and sat in the room, creating a compassionate space for the dying person while the nursing staff awaited Father Paul’s arrival. As I walked this holy ground with others, I found myself able to work through the losses in my own life, to find myself healing and understanding, too. That was a gift.
There are countless points of light that emerge in working with the dying. I have several stories to write over the next several days, describing the points of light that emerged during specific encounters over the course of my career in three states and multiple organizations. And, several about the encounters with death in my own life. But, today, I am grateful for the wise intuition of my senior colleague, friend and mentor Paul Henderson who encouraged me to step onto Holy Ground and to not be afraid.
All along the journey of life and death, there is light.