On the pilgrim way: Comforting a dying friend
He joked about it – my husband, Kees, and my old friend and colleague, John, both going into hospital on St Valentine’s Day; and not only that, but at the same ungodly time of 7am, in the same hospital and the same urology ward. Of course, we knew very well that there was a significant difference: Kees was going in for a routine prostate operation and John was having a procedure to alleviate the pain and discomfort of an aggressive cancer. The day after their operations, as I sat knitting, hour after hour, keeping Kees company through a dreary hospital day, John’s wife found me, to tell me that John was dying and would like to see me.
For the past 12 years or so, John and I had been meeting monthly, Bibles in hand, to look at the lectionary readings for services either of us was preparing to lead. John was the scholar, and sometimes he brought his Hebrew Bible or his Greek New Testament. He always brought a sharp, offbeat intelligence combined with his ongoing wrestling with the Word. He read voraciously – very often re-reading the great minds from our Reformed past: Richard Baxter, PT Forsyth, Geoffrey Nuttall (a much admired teacher of his). He discovered George Herbert’s poetry fairly recently and read everything he wrote. We talked about our respective local churches to which we were both – rather anxiously – devoted. John admired the saintliness and spirituality of ordinary church members but was not so appreciative of those in high office!
From time to time, John would come when he was in a dark place, oppressed by his own unworthiness, by the futility of his life, and I would become his confessor. More recently, as he became less well and suffered more, he seemed more and more confident of God’s love. At his wife’s suggestion, he planned his funeral and got enormous pleasure from that. He chose a fine, classical array of hymns – and was very particular about the tunes. John was a good musician and wordsmith, and wrote a hymn for me when I left local ministry.
I sat with his wife and daughter at his bedside. He no longer seemed able to speak very much but he smiled and his eyes sparkled. I read some psalms to him and he commented that the psalms were always good value ‘in whatever translation. By the way, which translation were you using?’ I was amazed at how cheerful he appeared. It was as if he was beginning to ‘see face to face’ while I, poor soul, could still only see ‘in a mirror dimly’. (1 Corinthians 13: 12 – NRSV!)
Sheila Maxey is Book Reviews Editor for Reform.
The Revd John Hickmore died on 18 February 2017
This article was published in the April 2017 edition of Reform.