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“I don’t know how to die,” admitted a cancer patient to her hospice nurse after last week’s admission to this nursing home. “I’ve never done this before.”

Her red-knit stocking cap bobs as more heart-words rivet our attention, seated around a table in the conference room filled with coffee cups and pastries. It is Sunday afternoon, the clouds moist with rain, the soaked gardens resembling stricken wildebeests.

Her voice strong, her back straight in the wheelchair, the elastic ties on her oxygen mask indenting her doughy cheeks, she describes recent changes: leaving her apartment and neighbors, leaving her oncologist’s palliative care, leaving her sons to their illusion that she will get better, leaving others to dispose of her personal effects, waiting long spells for others to wheel her around; even adjusting to her roommate’s stuff overflowing into her curtained cubicle—all of this with equanimity. “But the food is good,” she adds, her eyes smiling.

What is striking during our time together, however, is the number of employees who pass in the corridor and wave to our friend. For years, during trying hospitalizations and treatments, she had cultivated this cheerfulness, especially when it eluded her, and it continues to serve her well.

A woman of deep spirit, she is fearless in exploring the perimeters of her circumscribed world in the days still allotted to her. We will continue to follow her.

Her name is Miki.

 

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Warm breezes tinged the glistening grass near the parking lot around St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Brentwood, MO. Clusters of mourners shifted feet, gawked. Some smoked.

In the distance a fire truck glinted in the sun; behind it, the slow moving cortege inched its way toward the porte-cochere, then stopped. Uniformed firemen stood at attention as attendants guided the coffined remains of one of theirs onto a gurney. Inside the great oak doors three vested priests welcomed the recently deceased into his church-home with prayers and incensing and sprinkling with holy water, reminiscent of his baptism.

Noted for his soulful dark eyes, his forehead crinkling in mirth, his brogue, he taught others wherever he went: as a firefighter, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a neighbor. Forty-two years of practicing the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous also ennobled his character.

Stage IV leukemia, diagnosed in the spring of 2014, paradoxically, enlivened his willingness to undergo painful clinical trials at Siteman Center, knowing they would enable oncologists to help others suffering with his disease. Never did he complain. His frequent phone contacts with his network in the ICU, in the Leukemia Unit, or at home always ended with “Talk at cha later!”

But the fire of his disease eventually cleansed his soul for eternal life.

 At the conclusion of the Mass of Resurrection, the honor guard again stepped into the main aisle and snapped to attention. It was time for the Last Call. A crisp radio voice sounded throughout the church announcing the deceased’s name and passing, the same message broadcasted to all receivers on fire trucks, police cars, and emergency vehicles in the St. Louis Metro area. Then three gongs sounded on the portable fire bell. Silence hallowed the emptiness.

His name was Joe Bratcher.

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“No wonder you’ve been so tired, my friend. The test results indicate that you have an inoperable Stage IV pancreatic cancer. With special care, you might have three to six months. I’m so sorry.” So said the oncologist to the gentle warrior, with Viking blood, and his wife seated in the examining room of the clinic that October afternoon.

Such scenarios are played out daily, but few share their responses. Not our gentle warrior. He described himself as knocked down upon his square, but not knocked off. Drawing upon his decades-long practice of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, he stood up, adjusted his armor, and tromped back into the fray. He would not isolate, but share his probing into dark places for their inestimable treasures.

Always a writer, he took to his computer. What followed from that decision was a parcel of poignant emails and journal entries sent first to family and friends, but then to his worldwide audience. Each sentence breathed absolute trust in his Father, his understanding of God, as he watched the cancer waste his energy, bloat his abdomen, wrack him with nausea and joint pains. Even when barfing in the toilet he felt the Christ join him on his cross; within this awareness, they both began laughing knowing this would pass. And it did.

On January 11, 2011, he breathed his last, attended by his oldest grandson in Minneapolis’s Unity Hospital. Fortunately for us, his wife Paula compiled these emails and journal entries into a special book, Earnie Larsen – His Last Steps (2012). It is available on Amazon.

 

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Available on Amazon

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