Our neighbor Oliver has been battling lung disease this year. During his last ER visit he ended up in ICU, so Ginnette and I paid a visit. This is the hospital folks on the block warned us about, not to go there unless it was life or death. The hallways are old and drab, but clean. The staff looked tired, yet kept a smile on. When we walked into his room wearing yellow hospital gowns, we discovered he was sedated. He had been struggling with the machines keeping him alive. We stood there, talking as if he was fully awake. We caught him up on recent block news, shared about how God cared for him, all the while holding his swollen hand.
That hand had carried mail for thirty years through the neighborhoods of NYC. It had opened the Garden of Hope gate on our block for years, and had greeted us when we first moved to Hancock Street. All that was missing now was a smile. Different colored fluids left his lungs in transparent tubes. Not good. When we asked the nurses for a diagnosis, she asked if we were next of kin. Oliver is African descent, and we’re Scots Irish. She winked for us to say yes, but we didn’t pick up on her cue. All she could tell us was he was doing ok under the circumstances. A few days later, Oliver was gone.
The memorial service brought many words about his good qualities, and extolled his virtues. Tears were shed. His wife, no longer in his life, shared how she had watched him as a teenager, bow legged and muscular playing handball outside her apartment in the projects, and how she fell in love with those legs. We all laughed. They were all fine eulogies, yet painful for what wasn’t brought to light. Jesus Christ was never mentioned, nor anything related to the hope of eternal life, or the promise of the resurrection. Not even by the minister! A man had simply lived 65 years, never moving more than two miles from his birthplace, and had died in a hospital known for killing it’s patients. The last kiss, death, had stolen a soul right from under our nose.
Walking home, I thought of all the ‘wishes.’ I wish I had visited Oliver during one of his wakeful hospital stays. I wish I had walked home with him one night, any night, and initiated a conversation about his soul. I wish someone, anyone had. But for all the people in his life, to my knowledge none had offered him a boost up to the fountain of living water. I wish at his funeral, the pastor had taken a moment and asked us to inspect our own hearts, to see if we have truly believed upon Christ, who is the way, the truth and the life. I wish I didn’t have to write this and admit that he went off the cliff without any attempts to stop him.
Of course, we didn’t know Oliver well enough to be sure. Someone said something about a bible study he attended near the end. A verse or two were shared that afternoon, and so perhaps, just perhaps our friend is enjoying the fruits of belief in Christ. When he couldn’t breathe, and the cigarettes and booze caught up with him, maybe in those defining moments, he had transferred his trust to the heart of Jesus Christ, bowed his soul and surrendered all he was, to all He is. Perhaps Oliver is enjoying what none of us can see, but most of us believe will greet us when the last kiss meets our forehead—Jesus Christ in perfect clarity.
Oliver was part of the block association, actually when we met him, the sergeant of arms, a post he wasn’t very good at. He was just too kind to stop folks from talking, so our meetings stretched long into the night. At the end of those meetings, we would pray, a loose collection of faith and unbelief in that small crowded apartment. But everyone seemed to like it, and especially Oliver. He would scrunch up his bushy eyebrows real serious like, bend his head and receive the benediction. I think in some ways his soul was suited to be the home of God. The humble shall inherit the earth, and if that’s true, then Oliver is going to walk upon that new earth Jesus promised. Maybe he’ll take up his postal duties, to which he was so adept.
The last kiss will come to all of us. I don’t know about you, but in learning more about my friend Oliver, I am inspired to live each day for the sake of others, ‘open the garden gate’ as often as I can, and smile to everyone I greet. And yes, use my hands to lift others at the fountain of living water. Jesus Christ allowed himself to nailed to a post, so that the last kiss will be our first breath in heaven.