A few years ago I received a phone call.
“I’m a nurse in XY ward at The Royal Hospital. We have a patient here Mary Smith* who is dying. She has asked if you can come in and see her”.
Those sorts of invitations a Minister doesn’t refuse.
I quickly exited Exodus and made my way to the hospital. Parking was easy but the walk to the ward was difficult. It was one of those hidden away wards at the back of the hospital grounds. Probably in a building built around World War II and slight after a time and modified for other use many times after that.
Finally, I arrived at the ward. The nurse greeted me and led me in to Mary’s room. Mary was in a room all to herself. She was lying in her bed so her back faced he door.
“Hello Mary, I’m Bill”, I said. “Yes, I know” was her response. She painfully and slowly moved to face me and beckoned me over.
“Will you bury me?” she asked. She couldn’t raise herself and so her very voice seemed to be coming out of the mattress.
“Yes, of course I will” I said.
“Good” was her response. “Well you can go now”.
At that response I felt the urge to sit down.
“But we haven’t talked yet” I said.
“I know “ she said. “I know you’ll do a good job and now I know you will bury me. Now you’ve got better things to do than sit around with me. There are so many people out there who need help you’ve got more to do than sit and talk to me”.
With that she turned on her side away from me again, and seemed to sink deeper into the mattress.
So as quietly and as deferential as possible, I left the room.
Eventually – true to my promise I buried her.
I have kept that story close to my heart for years and often think of Mary and say a prayer for her. I never thought it would happen again and then “bang” a few weeks ago I received another phone call.
“Bill” she said on the phone “My name is Jenny Black* I’m home now. I’ve been diagnosed with a particularly aggressive cancer and the doctors tell me I am going to die very soon. Will you bury me? I’ve got my funeral all written out, the hymns and everything. I would be really pleased if you could do the service”.
The two of us, Jenny, the disembodied voice on the phone and me at this end, seemed somehow in that instant to click and we began talking.
“Of course I will”, I said.
“The doctors tell me it’s going to be quick”
“Look”, I said. “I have to go away for the next couple of weeks and then I’ll be back. From the strength of your voice I don’t think you will be going away anywhere soon and maybe we can have a cup of tea then”.
“Good” she said. “I’ll be looking forward to that”.
Jenny told me how she had been a volunteer in our Exodus Literacy Tutorial Centres and how much she gained from this.
Anyway, while I was away I was informed that Jenny had died. I felt really sad as I felt it was one of those phone calls where, as I said, we had clicked and it felt like a death in the family. Apparently, they had organized someone else to do the funeral and, feeling so bad, I invited her husband Jack to come in and have a cup of tea.
Last week, Jack dropped in. With him he had an envelope with over $500 in cash in it. “She asked for people, rather than give flowers make a donation to Exodus”, he said.
I asked him about the funeral.
“Since you were away we asked a venerable Steve, (a Buddhist monk friend of mine) but he was away too. The service was finally conducted by a nun at the hospital who had looked after her”.
“Jenny was very practical” he said, “She had organized everything down to the last minute. She was also religiously very eclectic too.”
“Are you like that?”, I asked.
“No, I was an accountant before I retired. We had been together forty-seven years and”, he said with tears filling his eyes, “its been a bit tough since she’s gone. People keep telling me not to make too many decisions right now. I think that’s sensible. So, I am just taking things slowly.”
“What would Jenny want you to do?”, I asked.
“Not hang around the house feeling sorry for myself”, was his response. “So I am going on a trip in a few weeks, doing a few things I always wanted to do but never got around to them”.
“There’s your answer”, I said.
It should have stopped there but literally the next day I got a phone call from a man. “My mother’s best friend just died and left money in her will to your Exodus Foundation. I’m the Executor and the cheque is burning a whole in my pocket so I would like to come and see you and give it to you as soon as possible. This has been going on for a while and I want to get it all finished”.
We made an appointment for the next day and we sat down in my office. He began to tell me a story.
“Mabel* was a single woman and an only child. She never married. She was a nurse. She spent all of her life doing good for people. She was always there rolling her sleeves up to help neighbours. She was very frugal with her money but always gave to worthy causes. She met you over thirty years ago at Parramatta Hospital where she worked as a nurse. She has given half her estate to you and the other half to another foundation whose founder died of the same disease she had”.
“Have you got a photo”, I asked. He pulled out an A4 black and white photocopy of a photo and I saw a young woman in the prime of life with an air of kindness about her that could not be ignored. I photocopied that together with her substantial cheque and intend to frame it and put it on my office wall.
For some reason deep within me these stories resonate. Three kind unselfish women who never complained about the fate life threw at them. I feel truly humbled to, albeit briefly, have met with them. None of them wanted this but I feel the only way I can truly thank them and so free them from the ties that bind them to my heart, is to share this story with you. Then maybe I can free them to live in one of the many rooms Jesus said he went ahead to prepare for them.