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Saying final prayer for a dying friend

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Column by David B. Whitlock

By DAVID B. WHITLOCK

It certainly wasn’t the first time I had prayed for my friend, Don Hughes, but I was convinced it was my last.

Our friendship was forged by prayer as he fought colon cancer. Several years ago, Gene, one of Don’s five sons, told me his dad was sick. “Would you please pray for him?” he asked.

And so I went to visit Don Hughes.

 “I thank you for coming,” he said as I left his house. “You’re always welcome here.”

And I was.

He never asked me to pray. He didn’t have to; he told me with his eyes.

Don and I had an immediate rapport with each other, as dissimilar as we were.

He was of the “Greatest Generation;” I’m a “Baby Boomer.”

He was from a rural community; I’m a city boy.

As wise as he was, his formal education was abruptly halted in the sixth grade when his father became disabled, and Don had to quit school to help support his family; my education extended 12 years beyond high school.

Other than gardening, I’ve never really worked with my hands; Don, a farmer and a maintenance supervisor, was also something of a master craftsman, an artist of sorts. Woodworking came rather naturally to him.

He was a devout Roman Catholic; I’m Southern Baptist.

His family arrived in Marion County, in the late 18th century, helping settle what became known as the “Holy Lands of Kentucky;” I’m an umpteenth generation Baptist from Oklahoma.

As different as we were, our lives intersected at the point of human pain: Genuine prayer, born out of desperation, leaps over the walls humans build to restrict the fellowship of faiths.

Somewhere in one of those visits, Don heard me mention that I sometimes pray on my knees. A few months later, he called and asked if I was in my office. “I’ve got something to bring you.”

When Don arrived, he proudly displayed his handcrafted cherry wood prayer bench, a Christmas gift I will forever cherish.

“Let me pray for you before you leave,” I said as we positioned the prayer bench in my office.

Don, paused, hesitated, started to speak, and then pondered some more. I thought I detected tears in his work worn eyes. I listened as he slowly choked out the words, “I haven’t known you for long, but I count you as a true friend.”

That’s been several years and many visits ago.

And then I stood at Don’s bedside for what I thought would be my last prayer for my friend.

Death comes for some abruptly, like a thief in the night; for others, it inches closer, slowly and steadily, like a hearse that’s first parked by the curb in front of your house, then in your driveway, and finally at your porch, waiting for you to board.

For Don, the hearse had finally arrived, and its doors were wide open.

I finished my prayer.

I looked down at him. His eyes were peacefully closed, his chest perfectly still; I couldn’t tell if he was breathing or not. “On my,” I thought to myself, “he died while I was praying.”

“Don?”

To my relief, he slowly opened his eyes.

“Just waiting for you to pray,” he whispered.

I had to smile.

So I prayed again, louder and closer to Don’s ears this time. To make sure he knew I had finished praying, I made the sign of the cross for my Catholic friend. He grinned in approval.

“If I don’t see you again here, I’ll see you in heaven, my friend,” I said as I left.

When I visited him a few days later, he was even less able to respond; cancer had ravaged his once strong body, leaving only a shell.

 “Can you hear me, Don?” I said, trying not to shout too loudly. “I’m going to pray for you, okay?”

He nodded a weak “Yes.”

Don’s escort to heaven arrived a few hours later.

In John’s vision of heaven, the Apostle wrote that he heard “the voices of thousands and millions of angels around the throne” (Revelation 5:11).

They say our hearing is one of the last faculties to go before we die. Don had trouble hearing those last prayers. But maybe that’s because he was beginning to hear other prayers, sung with heavenly voices, around the throne of God.

David B. Whitlock of Lebanon is a Baptist minister, author and educator. He can be reached at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com.