The Spiritual State: The Dying Woman in Room 402

It was early in my friendship with Tommy Hartman, the priest. My wife, Betty, who freely admits to being the only woman in the world married to both a rabbi and a priest, was in Houston visiting her sister and I called up Tommy and asked him if he wanted to go out for a pizza and beer. He was happy to get out of his priest bunker and go.

When I picked him up and asked were he wanted to go, he said, "North Shore Hospital." I said, "I don't think their pizza is that good, and I don't think their liquor license came through." He replied, "I want to go there first because there is a woman in room 402 who is dying of breast cancer. I want to see her and pray for her before she dies."

I am compassionate plenty during the week--plenty--and I am even compassionate for my congregants late on Tuesday night. But on Saturday night I need time with Betty and friends in order to fuel up for another week of explaining how people should not blame their pain and suffering on The Boss. So it was with some reticence that I agreed to accompany Tommy. What can you do when your best friend is a living saint?

The woman in room 402 was alone and sitting on the edge of her bed staring blankly out the window as if in a daze. Tommy said hello and I hung out by the door. I was thinking, "Mushroom, extra cheese, onions ..." OK, I admit it: I need work on the compassion side, but as I said before, it was Saturday night.

Tommy quietly and respectfully sat down on a chair next to the woman, held her hands gently in his hands, and said, just like this, "Dear, you are going to die, but you have nothing to fear because God is going to hold your soul in his hands like a little bird."

I was stunned. I had never seen such courageous honesty in talking to a dying person. My personal technique up to that evening watching Tommy, was to breeze into the room, smile and say, "Hey how ya doin? You look great! Well I have to be going now." Tommy just went straight into the truth without hesitation and without fear. It took my breath away.

Then Tommy asked her, "Dear, are you still afraid?" She was crying her eyes out and could barely blurt out the words, "Yes, Father, I am afraid now." Then Tommy repeated his healing spiel complete with the reference to God and the little bird (which he pantomimed for her by cupping his hands to show her just exactly how God was going to hold her soul in his hands like a little bird). Then Tommy asked her again if she was still afraid and all she could do was nod her head and breathlessly say, "Yes, I am still afraid." Tommy then asked her, "Why are you still afraid dear? Why are you afraid?"

The woman in room 402 then recovered enough composure to answer my best friend. She sobbed, "I am afraid because I just came into this hospital for a hernia operation! What are you talking about? Why am I going to die? "

Tommy, without missing a beat, rose and said to her, "Well then, you are not going to die!"

I was on the floor laughing so hard I thought I might die, repeating over and over, "Like a little bird ... like a little bird."

Tommy came over to me and said in an urgent voice, "Marc, I think we have to leave now."

The woman was pressing the call button like it was a detonator; Tommy pulled me out of the room by my feet. We ran down the hall outracing the security guys; we laid rubber screeching out of the parking lot. Over several beers and no pizza, Tommy looked at me quizzically and said these words which have sustained me personally through many screw-ups. I offer Tommy's words now to everyone everywhere who has done the best job they can, but even so it all just went to hell for some reasons they should have known and for some reasons they could not have known....

Tommy said, "Maybe the dying woman was in room 502."

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