September 29, 2020


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“So, would you like to meet Nathaniel?” she asked.

“Of course, I’d be honored.”

We left the living room, where the hospice nurse was talking with the woman’s husband and doing her assessment. She led me down a narrow hall to a back bedroom. “Please excuse the mess,” she apologized, “I’ve been using his room to go through my Christmas things.”

The bedroom was small but empty of furniture, except for an old dresser tucked back in an alcove. A baseball cap hung from its mirror and there were a few boxes in various states of organization on top of it and on the floor. And there were three small tables, one each on the other walls. On these tables sat picture frames and various personal items that I assumed belonged to Nathaniel.

A large collage of pictures dominated one wall, telling the story of a mischievous looking little boy in various stages of childhood, complete with school, sports, band and family pictures. The frames on the tables held more recent shots. There was a young man in a cap and gown next to a college diploma, another of the same person in an obviously uncomfortable suit, and several casual pics in which beer cans seemed prominent. She picked up one, where her son had a ball cap on backwards, sporting a heavy growth of beard, a sleeveless t-shirt, and his head cocked with a sly grin. “This is what he looked like last year,” she explained.

“And here’s Nathaniel.”

She placed her hand gently on a small wooden box in the center of the table. “Right here in his room, where he belongs, safe and at peace.”

“I come in here and talk to him often,” she added. “It’s been a little over a year now and I still can’t believe it.”

Without much prompting Nathaniel’s mother launched into a story she had clearly told many times. A good boy, smart, talented, with a kind heart, who loved his mother dearly. Then out of nowhere came the whirlwind of drugs and he would be gone for months at a time. She and her husband kicked him out of the house. Some mornings they would look out the window and there would be Nathaniel, standing on the sidewalk looking at where he used to live. Just standing there. On occasion he would hang around all day, slouching there by the street, until they looked out the curtains and he was gone again, out of sight and back into his chaotic world of addiction and craziness.

Mom and dad figured out the neighborhood where he and the other druggies stayed. They made some connections with people there who kept an eye out for him. Occasionally dad would drive through the neighborhood and drop a garbage bag filled with clothes and other essentials on a corner for him.

At other times, he straightened up his act enough to come live with them for awhile. Last year, when he turned 32, Nathaniel and a girlfriend moved back in again and he started working for a housing contractor. Seemed to be happy and keeping his nose clean. She recalled a day he came home so excited after he had finished a project on a house. Mom went to bed that night hopeful.

At about three in the morning, as she put it, “A voice screamed in my head: ‘Check Nathaniel!’ I came in here and saw something no mother should see. My boy was lying lifeless on the bed, dead from a heroin overdose. His girlfriend was barely alive next to him. I was able to save her, but he was gone.”

“We had him cremated,” she continued, “and the funeral director was so kind. He let us have a whole afternoon alone with him in the funeral home before they took him. My husband and I sat there with Nathaniel and cried our eyes out, laughed, told stories, and cussed him out too. It was just the three of us, like it had been for so long.”

“And so it’s just the three of us now again. That girl used to call and try to get money from us and she’d say Nathaniel told her his parents would take care of her, but that was a lie and we knew it. So she finally gave up and doesn’t contact us anymore. I find myself spending a lot of time with him here in this room.”

She didn’t show any tears; perhaps she’d run out of them over the past year. For the last six months, in addition to the loss of her son she had been facing the ever more likely prospect of losing her husband. He had been diagnosed with an inoperable form of cancer and was adamant that he did not want to go through the rigors of chemotherapy and radiation. At the time of my visit he was still doing well, even going out and working a little at his store each day. But this time she can see death coming, and she set her jaw as she spoke, steeling herself against what she knows will arrive eventually. Maybe soon.

I didn’t have much to say, other than to give out my standard lines: “Here are a few ways we might be of help. We’re available. You’re welcome to call anytime.” And so on.

This was our first visit and we’re just getting to know each other. We’ll see how this goes.

I already know enough to realize I don’t know anything at all.


  1. Chaplain Mike, may your presence bring comfort.

  2. ‘safe in his room’

    . . . maybe this is the reason people want to bury their dead on holy ground . . . a church yard or church mausoleum . . . and not ‘scattered ashes’ on a favorite hiking area surrounded by a great lonely forest, dark and wet and cold in deepest winter ?

    we can’t ‘let go’ easily of those we love dearly, can we? we want even what remains to be ‘safe’, or we ourselves are frightened ?

  3. This morning thick fog
    hangs over the streets and fields
    The mountains are gone

  4. Alison Griffiths says

    Such a sad story. My prayers are with you as you seek to offer the comfort of God to this couple and with this wife and mother as she faces another terrible loss.

  5. In light of yesterday’s post, is the Lord “using” this to further some work of the Kingdom? (Facetious question, of course)

    • From experience, I can say the Lord can definitely be present in a situation like this. Whether or not the situation itself was instigated or allowed for some “higher” purpose, who knows? But Him being present with us and in us in our pain and sorrow — I’d say that is the Kingdom in a more genuine sense than the latest mega-church building project.

    • Facetious or not, the people involved seem to be taking advantage of life as it happens to further the work of the kingdom within themselves, whether in religious garb or not. Which I would say is better than pretending it isn’t happening, and is in fact what we all are called to do. The mother’s response seems to be healthy in the face of extreme unhealth, and not in any way a show for others. I especially like the father and admire his decision to forego the barbarities of modern medicine in this regard. I might well make the same decision given the necessity and it helps me to know there are a few souls out there taking that route home, hope I never have to deal with it myself. Most of all I admire CM for being able to do this day in and day out in a way that actually helps and doesn’t take him under in the process. Has to be one of the hardest jobs in the world.

      No, God doesn’t send this stuff. Life happens as it happens. I’m convinced that life on Earth is the toughest school in the Universe. Sometimes I’m able to see this as high privilege. God help us all.

      • I love and agree with what you say, Charles. (Although I took on the barbarities — and they were — of chemo three years ago, and am glad now that I did. Don’t know if I’ll do it again when/if the cancer comes back.)

        Especially I agree with this: “Most of all I admire CM for being able to do this day in and day out in a way that actually helps and doesn’t take him under in the process. Has to be one of the hardest jobs in the world.”

        Thank you, Chaplain Mike, for your great service in the Kingdom.


        • Yes, God bless you, Chaplain Mike and all those like you who walk through that valley with the dying. I was fortunate enough to be able to be the primary caregiver for first my dad and later my mom when they were dying of cancer. The hospice workers were truly angels; I don’t know how we would have made it through without them.

  6. Sitting in a hospital room with my brother who is having a slow and difficult recovery from a major surgery. Only hospital sounds in here. When you’re faced with pain, you feel more than think, I think. When will suffering cease? This poor woman has only more on the horizon with her husband’s situation. You’re specially equipped Mike. Gifted, you might say, to do what you do. We must bear one another’s burdens however we can but your ministry is all about that. Tough stuff.