Jessica When I think of the patriarchs, I think of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Robert. Robert was a leader in his family, neighborhood, and the church which I pastor. He knew how to repair engines and relationships, build buildings and community, bust chops and impart wisdom. Strays (both the dog and human variety) knew they were welcome at his house. Many young men said, “I didn’t have a father. Robert was my father.”

With a Marine Corps cap and Marlboros close at hand, Robert didn’t look very saintly. But he was, and is, a saint, and a patriarch too—but not part of the patriarchy. In fact, Robert was one of my biggest supporters.

I am young, female, and Yankee, which made me a very unusual pastor for that community. But Robert immediately welcomed me. He yelled “Amen!” during my sermons and invited me over for lunch. His wife’s fried green tomatoes and biscuits made me a lover of Southern food. As I left, he’d always say, “You come back anytime.”

Much later Robert told me, “Some folks wasn’t sure about you when you got here. But I told ‘em to give you a chance. I told ‘em you’d learn a lot and we’d learn a lot. We’d all learn together.”

Shortly before Transfiguration Sunday, Robert got diagnosed with terminal cancer. “I’m sorry,” I said over the phone.

“You ain’t rid of me yet!” he snapped, and I laughed, and said goodbye, and wept.

I came over more often, and heard more of Robert’s story—growing up, raising children, caring for the church. I watched his body grow weaker, and his family more afraid. In late September he was hospitalized, and his doctors began using the word “hospice.” Panic flooded my brain. God, I don’t know what to do!

When I got to the hospital, I saw a church member by the elevator. She whispered, “They said it’s a matter of hours.” I nodded, fought the urge to run to the car, and entered the ICU.

When I saw him unconscious, I burst into tears. God, I’m the pastor, I’m not supposed to cry! More family members, weeping, threw their arms around me. A hospice representative asked to meet with immediate family outside. Somebody said, “Jessica, stay with him!” My tears did not disqualify me, but earned me the right to stay.

Robert and I were alone. I took his hand. “Robert, listen. You’ll be okay. God will be with you the whole way. We will, too. I promise.” With one hand I opened my Bible to Romans 8 and read in a slow voice, punctuated with occasional sobs.

The rest of the clan returned, and we kept vigil for many hours. I realized God didn’t want me to say or do much—short prayers and Scriptures, my own hands and tears were all I could offer. Much as I wanted to, I could not take away their agony. All I could do was stand beside them through it, and thereby witness to the crucified Christ who was suffering with them, too.

Often the urge to run returned, although my whole body ached, and silently I cried, God, help me! As the hours stretched on, I pleaded, God, he’s suffered so long. Come get him!

When his chest rattled we sang hymns. Goosebumps ran down my arms. I knew I was on holy ground. A train sounded nearby.

“Go get on that train, brother.”

“Go see Earl. You two’ll raise hell up there together.”

“We had a beautiful life.”

“We’ll take care of each other.”

One breath. Another. Another. And then… his face went gray. He was gone.

The room erupted in screams, then people filed outside. I followed, watched some of them light cigarettes, and gulped the smoke until my nose burned. I wanted to breathe in all the tragic beauty of that night, even though it hurt.

A few days later was the funeral, and the next day my twenty-third birthday, although I felt much older, much wearier. I dreamt of the family and awoke at dawn, and felt a strange joy rise inside.

God, you did everything. You always do everything. All I have to do is show up.

It’s been over a year since Robert died. I’m not rid of him yet, and hope I never will be.  

[Top photo: The altar at Jessica's church on All Saints' Sunday this year.]