Late to a Funeral


Fifteen minutes late, I quietly slid into the back pew. The service was well under way and the pastor was over halfway through his reading of my deceased patient’s biography. “Oh well”, I thought, “at least I made it!”

I almost didn’t. The funeral was at 2:30 and I had spent the first part of the day at Disneyland with my family. Lisa and I had been invited to share the Saturday with my son and his family. There was no way I was going to miss an opportunity to be with my grandson. As Charlie is only 2, I figured he wouldn’t last that long and that the 2:30 funeral start time would not be a problem. I took my suit along in the car thinking that we would be done in plenty of time for me to make it.

I was mistaken. Charlie had greater than expected endurance and he did not run out of gas until after 2. When we exited the bus in the parking lot and headed for our car, it was 2:28. I wondered if I should skip the service, thinking that it would be disrespectful to be so late. I also wondered if it would matter to the family whether or not I was there at all.

Something inside made me feel like I needed to go. I checked google maps and saw that it was only an eleven-minute drive from the Toy Story lot to the funeral home. “I’ll drive so you can change in the car,” Lisa offered, and my decision was made. I slipped into the passenger seat, grabbed my clothes from the back seat and transformed into a quick-change artist. My clothes were on and my tie was tied by the time we arrived at the funeral chapel. I found the entrance, stopped to sign my name at the bottom of the guest book, and found my seat.

As is so often the case, I learned many new things about my patient from the service. I had only known him as a debilitated man with heart failure and diabetes. He was so much more. Listening to his life story and watching the slideshow I learned of a muscular man who loved to hunt and fish and enjoy the outdoors. He had built a business and a family, and he loved his grandchildren.

When the service concluded, we were excused by rows, starting from the back. The family waited up front as we all lined up to express our condolences. I was fourth in line and watched as the wife, also my patient, greeted the other mourners. The hugs exchanged were brief, as were the words shared. Until she saw me.

He eyes widened as I approached, then filled with tears. “You came!”

Her composure broke as she reached out her arms and embraced me. She held me tight, her head on my shoulder, and began to cry. Up until seeing me, she had been in total control. I returned her embrace, all the while wondering why it was me that had brought such a response.

After a moment, she gathered herself and relaxed her embrace. She took me by the hand and said, “You have to meet my kids.”

Her adult children were standing behind her. She pulled me to them saying, “This is Dr. Barrett.” Their faces softened in recognition of my name. It was clear that they had heard of me and knew who I was. I wondered what they had heard, and why I was the subject of conversation at all. I shook their hands, first the son’s and then the daughter’s. His handshake was brief, hers was not. She firmly held my hand in both of hers and with tear-filled eyes thanked me for taking good care of her dad.

“I know that because of you he lived long enough to see his grandchildren,” she said, “Thank you.” I did not know what too say. I couldn’t think of any particular treatment or diagnosis that justified her belief. I knew that I had loved her dad and done my best for him, but I did not feel comfortable being credited in such a way. I nevertheless mustered a feeble “thank you, it was my pleasure,” before turning away to allow others to offer comfort.

I exited the chapel stunned. I was totally unaware of how much I meant to the family, of how much my presence at the service was going to matter. My interactions with the man had always been brief, only rarely more than 15 minutes. How could I be so important?

It seems that I had underestimated the power of caring. While his conditions were not cured, his concerns were heard, his quality of life occasionally improved. He was not a heart patient to me, he was a man. Seeing him that way had made more of a difference than I could have imagined. Apparently, there are times when caring is as important as providing good care.

It is humbling to realize how close I came to missing out on the blessing given me by the family. They gave me much more than I gave them.