When I arrive at the Intensive Care Unit, the ICU, the doctor tells me that Cameron is unresponsive and that he would die soon, very soon, perhaps that night.
I stare, through the sliding-glass door, at him, lying on a bed with tubes and wires connecting his body to machines and translucent bags of fluids—morphine and saline, the doctor briefs me, to keep him hydrated and to dull his pain. As I slide open the door, I hear a beep coming from a monitor suspended above him, a monotonous tone, keeping time with his heart’s pulse, reminding doctors and nurses and me that he’s still alive, despite the lifelessness of his glazed eyes.
Sitting beside his bed, my tears dripping on his sheets, I reach my hand to his, and my fingers quiver as we touch. I expect the warmth of my palm to awaken life in his. I expect his hand to grasp ahold of mine in return—the unspoken rule of handholding, of mutual recognition, the instinctual acknowledgement of touch. But his hand is limp, and his skin cold and dry.
Words from Sebastian Moore, a Benedictine monk, flash into my head: “We must look forward to the moment when all the mysteries of God will be revealed in the clasp of your brother’s hand.” With both my hands I clasp Cameron’s and I wait for revelations, for his flesh to unveil the mystery of death, the secrets of the God. I look into his half-open eyes for a sign, but his blank stare gazes through me, beyond me, at nothing.
I tell him that I love him, that I’m going to miss him, and I whisper a prayer, asking God to comfort his body and keep watch for his soul. I murmur jumbled words while hospital machines buzz and drone around me, and Cameron’s chest rattles with every dying breath.
As the night staff begins their shift, I slide my iPhone from my pocket and thumb an email to our congregation, to let them know that Cameron would die soon. If they want to say goodbye, they should visit him now.
The next day, in the morning, I return to the hospital, to sit with Cameron, because I know he has always hated being alone and I can’t bear to leave him companionless as he dies.
I murmur jumbled words while hospital machines buzz and drone around me, and Cameron’s chest rattles with every dying breath.
As I walk through the ICU, toward Cameron’s room — as I get closer, I hear singing, I hear four-part harmonies, Mennonite singing, echoing from his room. A dozen members from our church are there, all of them standing beside his bed, filling his room with their voices, encircling him with the music of heaven, engulfing him with the sounds of the Holy Spirit, embracing him in the love of Christ’s body, drawing him into communion with us and with God.
For our last song we sang one of our congregation’s favorites, a benedictory hymn: “God be with you till me meet again, May the Shepherd’s care enfold you, God be with you till we meet again.”
Two hours after we finish singing, Cameron stops breathing. Lifting my hand to his forehead, I trace a cross on his skin, “From ashes to ashes,” I whisper, “from dust to dust.”