I Remember: Dr. Duane Arnold
I remember Sharon.
I received a telephone call from a student at the university where I was a chaplain. “Duane, my cousin’s dying from cancer. She wants to talk to a priest and be baptized. Will you see her?”
I really wanted to say, “No”, to refer the young man to the hospital chaplain. I was tired. I had a class to prepare. In the end, however, more from guilt than from compassion, I said, “Yes”. God, however, works even through guilt and, unknown to myself, I embarked on a journey that led through the waters of baptism and death to the release of souls and the glimpsing of rainbows.
I met Sharon on a dark afternoon in February. Lent was about to begin. She was slumped on a chair in her room – swollen feet propped on a stool, legs covered with a blanket, a bathrobe draped over skeletal shoulders, a bandana wrapped around a bald head – a forty-six year-old divorced mother of two, with only days to live.
As I walked in, she smiled. In that moment, one of the quiet miracles in my life took place. A peace that only comes from enduring unspeakable pain flooded the room with light and warmth. In an instant, her smile erased all my seminary-learned strategies of care for the dying. Before we exchanged names, I was conscious that she was to teach and I was to learn about dying and living.
We talked an hour that first day. I spoke to her about baptism, about the Cross and the empty tomb. She told me about anger and sorrow, about being scared and sad. She wanted to be baptized, but not yet. She asked me to come back and talk some more. It was an invitation to enter her world, to share her final days.
For the next two weeks, I saw Sharon every other day. We marveled at revised values in the face of death, tried to imagine being in heaven, quarried for little signs of God’s presence, held hands. She showed me her bald head. I showed her a scar from a car wreck. She joked about “cheery chaplain” visitors who pretended she wasn’t dying. She talked about her favorite place by a lake. Once, in a mutual glance, we saw unexpected tears in each other’s eyes.
The pain mounted and she knew the end was near. Now connected to tubes, her bandana askew on her head, she told me how much she missed her garden, planting her tomatoes in the early Spring, seeing the first rainbow after the showers of the season. Suddenly, she stopped and asked if I would baptize her on my next visit.
As I drove to the hospital the next day, a story came to mind. It was from E.B. White’s introduction to his wife’s last book on gardening. He described in great detail how his wife, who was very old and in great pain, went out into the garden in the late Autumn to plant bulbs. She knew that she would not see another Spring and so, in his words, “she knelt on the ground under the dark skies in that dying October calmly plotting the resurrection”. I pulled my car into a garden center near the hospital. I bought a simple clay pot filled with dirt and mulch and a packet of tomato seeds. I put them in the front seat next to my stole and my silver baptismal shell. Thus armed, I went to visit Sharon to plot a small resurrection of our own.
We talked it over. I said that the plant would be a symbol of what was happening to her in her baptism as it blossomed and bore fruit. Just as her baptism would be a sacramental sign of new life, so would the planting of a simple seed. Its new life, springing out of the earth, would be an outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual reality of her life in heaven. I told her I would tend it well. She joked and asked why I couldn’t provide a rainbow as well. She stared down at the seed. She said that her body felt like its hard, dry shell… ready to crack. After a pause, she said that she knew there’d be another Spring.
Together we planted the seed. Then Sharon was baptized. The water from the silver bowl was poured into the hard earth of the clay pot.
As I got ready to leave, I asked if I could pray with her. Sharon said, “No, this time I want to.” She had never prayed before in my presence and I anticipated some formal, awkward invocation. Instead, I found myself listening to a warm intimate chat between two friends. She apologized to God for her anger at not being able to die sooner. She thanked him for her baptism and the time to plant seeds. She told Him that He could be in charge and that she loved Him. I placed the clay pot on the window sill and kissed her good-bye.
The phone rang the next evening. It was Sharon’s nurse. “Can you come to the hospital right away?” When I arrived, Sharon was unconscious. Her body was slack, her eyes closed. Her slow breathing sounded like boiling water. I pulled up a chair, took her hand and put my lips close to her ear. “Sharon, it’s Duane.” Her eyes opened for a moment, then shut. I said a short prayer and went to look for the nurse.
For the next hour nothing happened. Sharon’s hand was cool, her breaths ragged and harsh. The nurse walked in, looked at Sharon’s face and nodded. I anointed Sharon with oil, took her hand and read from the Prayer Book:
Into thy hands, O Merciful Savior, we commend Thy servant Sharon. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech Thee, a sheep of Thine own flock, a sinner of Thine own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of Thy mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.
The room was silent. A young doctor came in, felt for a pulse, looked at me and said, “I’m sorry”. I wondered why.
I stayed behind as the room emptied and looked at Sharon. The shell had cracked and now she was free. I said good-by to this person I had come to love and took the clay pot from the window sill, staring at the hard and unyielding earth it contained.
Nothing happened. As those who know me can testify, I know nothing about gardening. I felt foolish day by day watering dirt. I wanted to throw it away. After all, life from an old clay pot sitting in an empty room?
Some weeks later we had a Spring storm. Afterwards I went around the house to see if water had gotten in through the windows. Looking out of one window to a stand of trees nearby, I could see a rainbow forming as the rain moved off against the light to the east. At that instant, I glanced at the clay pot. First I smiled, then I started to laugh. She had gotten it all.
A tiny blade was poking through the dirt. It was half an inch tall, light green and straight as an arrow. It had pushed a big clump of soil to one side as it emerged, and it now faced the sun shining through the rainbow.
The Book of the Revelation of St. John the Divine tells us that we see only half of the rainbow, for the other half continues in heaven, encircling the throne of God with all the saints attending Him. Through the waters of baptism and the freeing of a soul, Sharon was seeing the other half.
For a moment, even in Lent, the stone was rolled away, the curtain was torn in two, and the resurrection had begun.
Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD