Excerpted from "The Journal of Pastoral Care," Fall 1999, Vol. 53, No. 2.

On that particular morning, I was jarred awake by the phone ringing. For 22 months I had been the volunteer lay chaplain, and the only chaplain, for our local hospice program.

"Things are bad at Mr. White's house. William is dying. The nurse and the family's volunteer have both been there all night and need to leave now. Are you available to stay with the family?" The request came from my friend, Betty, the volunteer coordinator.

A short while later, I find myself driving slowly and carefully along the twisting, turning roads in the hill country that is nestled in an area not far from the small town where I live. This is truly God's Country where the noise that invades the silence is the buzz of insects and the call of birds and animals; where one passes from the sun dappled road into the dancing shadows of overhanging tree limbs then out again, playing a game of hide-and-seek with the daystar that warms our earth.

William's family is exhausted. One daughter, Rita, who has been up most of the night, is trying to nap on the living room couch. The two younger daughters, Krista and Laurie, are talking quietly in the kitchen. Meg is at her father's bedside, and Catherine, William's wife, is nowhere to be seen, probably resting in her bedroom.

I soon learn that Meg is the one who has been her Dad's "boy"--the one who went fishing and hunting and learned to swing an ax in a masculine manner. This slim, attractive professional woman, wife, and mother of three, had promised her father that she would not leave him alone in his dying.

The hours drag by. I watch the sun as it journeys on its appointed path from a low rising point in the east past the noontime meridian. Meg and I discuss our shared belief that when a person dies, an angel or a family member will come to aid the newly deceased's soul on his or her journey to the light that is our God.

How aware is William of what is actually going on? I don't know. He hasn't uttered a sound since my arrival, but I know that the last sense to leave a person's physical body is that of hearing. And so we talk of the beauty of the day, of the birds at and below the feeders, and of the squirrel trying to shimmy up the pole to feast on seeds that were never intended for him.

The question I dread the most is, "How much longer can this go on?" I always wish at these moments that I were a prophet and knew the hour and minute, or at least the day when a patient will exhale that last breath.

"When?" Meg asks me repeatedly during the slow moving hours of the day.

I can only shrug my shoulders and reply, "Only God knows."

At one point, close to the evening meal time, I think death might be near, and I bring the family to the patient's bedside. But, once again, I am reminded that God's time is not our time. We wait and watch. His breathing is slower than ever. His skin is turning gray and feet are beginning to mottle. All are signs of impending death--but death will not come.

We take a break for supper; that is, all of us but Meg, who stays right by her father's side just as she promised. After dinner, we gather again in William's room. The shadows lengthened as the sun approaches the western horizon and dusk begins to descend. Suddenly I see it. The biggest raccoon I have ever seen in my life lumbers over the ridge of the hill that abuts the back yard. He waddles from side to side until he is under the swing set, and then he just sits and stares at us. He isn't foraging for good. He just stares.

"Look out the window at that huge raccoon. Have you seen that animal before?" I ask.

"No," Catherine says, "we've been watching a racoon come into the yard for food but it wasn't as big as this one."

The racoon and I then enter into a staring contest. It is similar to the action that follows a dare young children make with each other to see who will look away first.

"So have you finally come for him?" is the unspoken message from my brain to the raccoon's. I had recently read a book that talked of how angel messengers inhabit animal bodies. This is so typical of William's and Meg's beliefs. They will have no winged angels in gossamer dancing on the head of a pin or on the bed rails, but a heavenly being in a raccoon's coat will be most acceptable.

The patient clears his throat as if to say something to us or to whomever he sees. He takes another breath, clears his throat again--and dies. The racoon immediately leaves by the same route used for its entrance.

Perhaps it was just a fat raccoon, but you'll never convince Meg or me. Angels have many jobs but the two most obvious seem to be functioning as heralds of God's messages and leading souls back to their heavenly home.

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