Lee Richmond was a well-loved and retired college professor of American history. His champion and perennial source of inspiration was Abraham Lincoln. While Lee and his family gradually resigned themselves to hospice care, Lee continued to draw strength and purpose from the immortal closing of Lincoln’s second inaugural address:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan— to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Lee hailed from a long line of Pennsylvania Quakers, who are known for seeking peace by listening for the still, small voice within. Lee was a gentle man, gifted with a sharp mind, yet the acknowledgement of his terminal cancer was testing his spirit.
Also, beyond the safe confines of his home, our nation’s political and social divisions deepened his dismay. Lee knew too well that history repeats itself and seeing our country bitterly divided was as if the Civil War was raging anew. Lincoln’s call for national healing, just 41 days prior to his assassination, served as a moral compass for Lee.
One question of many during the hospice intake process is whether the new patient would like a chaplain to visit. Lee had said yes, allowing me to call on him in the suburban home that he shared with his son, Drew, and daughter-in-law, Jan.
Lee greeted me at the front door with a smile that exuded kindness. Walking carefully and leaning on the furniture to avoid falling, Lee welcomed me into a bright living room. He settled into his favorite corner of a well-worn couch. Jan came in from the kitchen, introduced herself with a warm handshake, and brought us water. She sat with us to help Lee feel at ease with our initial visit.
“What kind of support would be most helpful right now?” I asked.
“This is all new for me,” he said after a thoughtful pause. “It’s hard to wrap my mind around, so I thought it would help to have someone to talk with.”
“I’d be honored,” I told him. “What would be important for me to know about you?”
And so began a compelling and intimate conversation about Lee’s quest to conclude his life’s work.
“I knew this time was coming but it feels strange,” Lee said, “as if it’s happening to somebody else. I’m having a hard time coming to terms with it all.”
Lee was a deep and practical thinker, calm and well-spoken. By any measure, it appeared that he had achieved success and was now surrounded by a devoted family. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer came to mind, challenging each of us to discern what we have the power to change, versus what we would do well to accept. Lee’s final course of study was to find peace of mind.
I asked if he was familiar with Victor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning.
Nodding yes, he took his cue. “Frankel’s central theme was that no matter what may be taken from us, even life, we retain the ability to choose our emotional and spiritual response.”
I smiled and nodded yes in full agreement.
“We get to decide the ultimate meaning of what transpires,” he added. Lee’s train of thought jumped quickly ahead to what would become a recurring theme.
“But how much time do you think I have?” he asked. “Is there anything else I should be doing?”
It was as if he was prepping for a final exam.
I sensed Jan’s quiet presence and her impulse to contribute. Looking to her with a nod of encouragement, she jumped in.
“Dad, I know that accepting hospice has been a hard process. We just want you to be as comfortable as possible and to have as much time together as we can …” Her voice cracked with emotion.
“Thank you,” he said with a tender voice. “But I want this to be manageable for you all too,” he added.
Lee was alluding to his decision to move to our agency’s inpatient hospice unit, just a few miles away, to spare his family the task of full-time caregiving in his final weeks. This is an opportunity few hospice patients have, yet he had clearly weighed his options and had come to a decision. I admired his clarity and self-determination.
When I saw Lee next, he was in a small private room, sitting up in a single bed with “his” Philadelphia Phillies playing baseball on TV. Being it was an “off year,” his team was providing only further disappointment. Perhaps that’s why he was glad to see me.
He muted the TV and showed me a crayon drawing by his twelve-year-old grandson of Lincoln standing before a miniature U.S. capitol, speech in hand. No family member had been spared Lee’s devotion to Honest Abe. Choked up with loving pride, Lee appeared to realize that his legacy had been conferred and was intact. I felt happy and relieved for this good man and his family.
A week later, I found Lee about where I had left him, having just finished lunch and iced tea that Jan had brought from home. Lee’s expression signaled he had something important on his mind.
“David, I feel ready… but I’m still here.” I must have smiled. “No, really, I mean it. I’m ready to go,” he said. “Do you think it will be long?” What would Honest Abe have said to him?
“Lee, if Jan keeps bringing you home cooked meals, you’re going to be here awhile. And the Phil- lies are winning again. Truth to tell, very few hospice patients are sitting up, taking nourishment, and talking right before they die.”
“Hmm…” he said, taking that in, and then was quiet for a minute. “What would move things along?” he asked.
It was my turn to think.
“You know, Lee, I think your family is cherishing this time with you. They’re not quite ready. Would you be willing to do some homework?”
He smiled. “Yes.”
“When you’re by yourself next, put on your old Quaker hat and listen for that quiet voice. Ask whatever questions are most important to you. Please trust what you find there. I look forward to hearing how it goes.”
When I stopped by next, the TV was off. Lee’s bedside table was all but clear, no snacks, just a cup of water with plastic straw and, front and center, his grandson’s drawing. Lee’s eyes were closed, and I sensed a deep change in him, what the hospice folks call “being in transition.”
The venetian blinds were turned down to shade the bed. He did not wake up. I took the opportunity to say goodbye and to thank him in the quiet of my heart for our time together.
I bowed my head, listening to his slow rhythmic breathing, as a lasting peace filled the room. Two days later, in the quiet of the night, with his son and daughter-in-law holding bedside vigil, Lee slipped away.
Next Week: When Few Options Remain
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Until next week, ‘Safe Journeys,