I take the walk between two trees, noticing only that they match. As I knock, I examine the slender holly that touches the corner of the house. My own holly is in the middle of the yard and much fuller.
A few moments more in the car might have helped me to focus on my presence here; instead, the moments now proceed as for one who needs to complete tasks. How do you prepare an approach to the front door of a man who’s learned that he’s dying?
The housekeeper expects me and brings me through two rooms and back to the kitchen. The refrigerator stands open, condiments, drinks, and containers arranged on the carpet with rags and a bottle of cleaner. Jim invites me to squeeze around the table and to sit on his other side; the nurse has finished. Medical folders lie as placemats, plastic hospital-looking bags and stacks of opened envelopes covering the table, a small clearing for an ashtray. I move his tool bag from the seat to the floor. “Put it anywhere,” says Jim, “I guess I won’t be using it again.”
“I brought banana bread,” I say. “My wife made it yesterday. The smell was so good I almost took it to my office and told her I gave it to you.” I look at the nurse; she’s repeated her goodbye three times and still stands by her chair. Will I cut the air with another joke? I hear Annie Dillard in my conscience: “What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality?”
The nurse’s exit reveals an oddly placed photograph on the wall behind where she had sat. It’s hung low, off-center, the background the same color as the wall. “That’s my wife, just before she had to stay in bed. She always sat right there, and I sat here.” She gazes to the middle of the table, her right hand back on her hip, the other elbow on the table with her cheek resting upon her palm, not posing for and probably not wanting any cameras. It’s a shot Jim perhaps took with foresight.
A man with six months seems the inverse of Advent: an expectant mother and Israel’s long hoped for Messiah. How do you focus awareness on anything from Thanksgiving to Christmas? Our Christmas themes are so distant from the tradition of Advent. Last Advent, my closest pastor friend decided he’d start using the lectionary. He nixed it before the first week. “I read the passages,” he said, “and they didn’t have anything to do with Christmas!”
Six months to live and six months to bear a child: are they dissimilar themes? The traditional motif to begin Advent — “Stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning— lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake.” — only seems detached from Christmas.
Christmas is about the Incarnation: the Son of God comes and shares our nature. A child is not just born; he is born unto us, God in flesh. That is what we learn to await and watch for in Advent. I learned from the Anglicans that the coming of Christ is threefold: Christ came in the flesh, born in Bethlehem, his first advent; Christ will come again on the last day, his final advent; but the long tradition of an Advent season teaches us to awaken to Christ’s coming to us now. This advent of Christ to us in the present, for which we prepare through faith and repentance, is threefold, as well: he comes to us through Word and Sacrament, through his body, the Church, and through our ministry to “the least of these my brothers” (Matthew 25:40).
“Hosparus comes Thursday,” Jim tells me. “They said I need a clean refrigerator to store all the medicine.” He directs the housekeeper as she works from her knees restocking lunch meats and bottled waters. Among the magnets on the freezer sticks an aged leaflet illustration of Jesus raised from the tomb. Around the Lord’s feet someone has glued red feathers of different sizes and shades. While I stare at the wonderfully strange craft, he tells me about his last visit when the doctor recommended Hosparus and now he won’t go to anymore appointments. His hands shake as he takes a cigarette. “I don’t like anyone, especially some doctor who’s only known me a few months, telling me that I’ve had a full life.” He looks at the empty chair. “But he’s right.”
[I received permission to write about my visit but have changed his first name to Jim for privacy.]
Joseph Payton is a native of Kentucky and lives with his wife and two young children in Louisville where he has served bi-vocationally as the Senior Pastor of Brookview Baptist Church for over six years. He also homeschools his son using a forest-based curriculum.