Tom’s hospice patient wore a three-piece suit for Tom’s initial visit. In addition to the three-piece suit, Jim wore a freshly pressed white and blue striped shirt and a red tie. His hair was carefully combed and his face clean-shaven, smelling of freshly applied cologne. His appearance said, “Look, Tom, I went through a great amount of effort to get ready for you to come here today. I’m not treating your visit lightly, so I don’t want you to treat it lightly either.” On the other hand, Jim’s wife Barbara greeted Tom at the front door, saying, “Jim had a rough night last night. I don’t think he’s going to be able to stand much in the way of personal interaction. So, if you can be as brief as possible, I’d really appreciate it.”
Given those seemingly contradictory agendas, Tom decided to compromise between the two, deciding to make his usual forty-five minute initial visit a visit of only thirty minutes. In those thirty minutes he covered his standard physical and emotional questions, but did not have enough time to cover anything related to Jim’s spiritual/religious thoughts and feelings. In his haste to leave (he thought it was accidental), he left his overcoat in Jim’s home.
Tom had no other appointments that morning, so he drove back to the office. As he was about to drive by the massive structure of St. John’s Catholic Church with its immaculate grounds, he stopped for some children crossing the road, walking towards the church. He noticed the large sign advertising the upcoming sermon topic: “Jesus Became Flesh Of Our Flesh.”
After parking in the hospice office parking lot, Tom sat for a moment in his car, thinking about the time he had just spent with Jim. He liked Jim’s no-nonsense forthrightness; Jim had answered all of Tom’s questions with complete candor. Jim had fully acknowledged the inevitability of his imminent death and felt comfortable talking about it. He even joked about it. “I suppose I’m not going to mind dying. It’s just that I don’t want to be there when it happens.”
As soon as Tom entered the front door of the hospice office, the receptionist handed him a note saying that Jim had just called and wanted Tom to return the call as soon as possible. Tom went to his office cubicle and immediately called Jim back.
“Jim, this is Tom from hospice. I was told you called.”
“Yeah. You left your overcoat here.”
“Oops. You’re right. When would be a good time for me to come by and get that?”
“Well, I’d like to end my day around five. Is there any possibility of me coming a little bit earlier?”
“No!” Jim said loudly and emphatically.
Taken aback by the unexpected forcefulness of Jim’s reply, Tom stumbled out a “Well . . . okay. I’ll be there at five.”
Tom felt there were some confusing and mysterious things happening in Jim’s household, but he knew for sure that he needed to be there exactly at five o’clock. So he crossed town for the third time, and knocked again on that front door. This time Jim came to the door rather than Barbara. This time Jim wore blue jeans and a flannel shirt. Also, Jim was bald; apparently he had been wearing a wig in the morning.
With a smile and a welcoming voice, Jim said, “Come in, Tom. It’s okay. Barbara’s in the basement under the hairdryer. She’ll probably be there for another twenty minutes or so, and we can talk. Come on in.”
Jim then led Tom into his living room, and gestured for him to sit on a well-worn brown leather chair.
“Would you like to have a beer?” he asked.
“No thank you, Jim.”
“Would you mind if I got one for myself?”
“No. Not at all. Go ahead.”
Jim came back from the kitchen carrying a beer and a plate of crackers. He extended the plate of crackers to Tom.
“No thanks, Jim.”
Jim sat down on the beige couch right across from Tom and said, “You know what I miss the most?”
“No, Jim. What do you miss?”
“I miss Stormy’s Bar.”
“Well, why do you miss Stormy’s Bar?”
“That bar was run just the way a church ought to be run.”
Tom appeared a bit taken aback by Jim’s remark. He didn’t know how he and Jim had gotten there, but it appeared as though they were about to talk about something related to the topic they failed to cover in the morning.
“What are you talking about, Jim?”
Jim took a sip of beer, wiped his mouth, gave a thankful sigh and looked up at the ceiling as he rolled his eyes. He then directly looked at Tom and delivered the following homily:
“I don’t know what you do in the way of religion or worship or anything like that, Tom, but my church could learn more than a few things from Stormy’s. First of all, I can go to Stormy’s wearing that three piece suit like I did in the morning, or I could be wearing these blue jeans, and I know that no matter what I’m wearing, people aren’t going to look at me funny or judge me because of how I happen to be dressed. On the other hand, I know that if I were to go to my church wearing these blue jeans, people are going to look at me kinda funny. And to tell you the truth, sometimes I just feel like wearing blue jeans. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel like church. I’d like to go to my worship community dressed however I feel and know that I’m not going to be judged because of what I’m wearing.
“And another thing. I go to Stormy’s and I sit down next to somebody, or somebody sits down next to me, and we get into a conversation. And that conversation might even end up being an argument, but I know that at the end of the conversation I’m going to learn something about that other person and that other person’s going to learn something about me. When I go to my church and I sit down next to somebody or somebody sits down next to me, I’ve got to not only say the same thing as that other person, I’ve got to say it in unison. Now how am I going to ever learn anything about that other person or that other person learn anything about me?
“And another thing. I go to Stormy’s and there are a few rules. And if you break one of the rules, you get kicked out of the bar. I go to my church, and you would not believe how many rules they have there, and I know for a fact that there’s not a single person there that follows all of those rules, yet everyone pretends as though they do, and nobody ever gets kicked out. What kind of rules are those?”
As Tom laughed at the conclusion of Jim’s remarks, Barbara came up from the basement in a housedress, with her hair up in curlers. She put her hands over her head as she saw the two of them. She promptly pivoted around to go back down the basement steps, rapidly closing the door behind her, mumbling something unrecognizable.
After publishing eight non-fiction books on care for the dying and the grieving, Doug Smith is now converting the patient stories in those books into fictional short stories. He teaches at Northern Michigan University.