The crow and comfort

“I am so grateful that I get to bless them and to thank them and to say ‘well done’,” writes Rev Alex Sangster.

By Rev Alex Sangster

“Waaaa waaa waaa waaaaaaaaaaaaa.”

Crow comes with me to the funeral of my friend Margaret. Literally, he is there. He is always there. Crow hops on one claw.

Going to visit people who are dying is kind of part of the drill, like core business.
“Hatches, matches, dispatches – that’s what we do,” I was told by a professor at Theological Hall.

And so I do, I visit.

Sometimes there is fluid. Like tears and sweat and all the other outpourings that seep and flow and flood from our breaking bodies. Sometimes I hold hands or take off bras or remove sheets. Sometimes they vomit and apologise and weep and together we wipe and settle back.

Sometimes they are sleeping and part of my brain curses because I will have to come back and see them again and, actually, I am crazy busy and I don’t know how I will find the time before they die and then I feel dreadful because, when they finally open their eyes, I am so grateful that I get to bless them and to thank them and to say “well done”.

Other times they yell, while gripping my hand with such force that my blood starts thrumming and they sear me through with wild unseeing eyes and they beg me:

“Let me go.”

Like I am some kind of gatekeeper, like I can open a curtain, or a window, like the old Irish nurses used to do, to let the soul escape.

“Let me go! Let me go!” they plead, and I find their sight and hold their gaze, and say, “it’s ok, you can go now, you can go”.

But still they cry

“Let me go. Let me go.”

The hardest and the best are, of course, the parishioners who have become your friends – the ones you love and who love you too (which is against the Minister’s Code of Ethics, not the love part but the friendship part, but we all do it, and cannot help it, and we kind of don’t care what the rules say).

With my friend Margaret, I visit every few days and I watch her journey from the land of the living to the shadow place of the now, but not yet – and then, finally she is gone.

This is what I see: This visit, we drink tea and we talk about your funeral, you have it all prepared, the hymns carefully chosen, you tell me what you want and I promise you I will make it happen. You look me clear in the eyes and I begin to cry.

You squeeze my hand. Who is ministering to whom?

“Remember when I was about to give birth to Nushy?” I say.

“Remember how you knew that something was wrong? Remember how you rang?”

This next visit, the teacup is next to you, by the bed. It’s like a little fist, of polite resistance, held up, in the face of the grim reaper, the one who’s been biding his time, hanging out in the doorway.

Not yet, the cup seems to be saying.

Not yet.

Next visit – no cup, just you. Mouth open. Your teeth are out.

Your mouth too dry to put them in and what’s the point anyway. Your nightie is flannel and faded, but it smells like lavender, like all old ladies’ nighties. And it has been ironed, even now.

It is almost Ascension Day, the day that story tells us Jesus rises up, up, up, up.

In the old paintings, you can sometimes see his toes, dangling, at the top.

“Do you remember?” I say.

“How we used to laugh at this day and now your soul is floating away. You are going up too.”

We both want this, to be true.

This an excerpt from Rev Alex Sangster’s book, ‘do they make coffins that small?’, which is available through Coventry Press.

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