A Dying Man Mistook Me for Jesus

Things were not looking up for Harvey, even when he thought they were. He came back from Mexico feeling like a new man. It was a non-traditional treatment for the cancer that had taken him across the Rio Grande. Some crazy mixture of God only knows what had been injected into his system. I’m no doctor. I offered no criticism. Just listened patiently as he went on and on, the most alive I’d seen him for months. He was still dying, but if he felt like doing a happy dance on Death for a while, I’d be the last man to stop the music.

Harvey was the kind of fellow who looked funny when he wasn’t wearing boots and a cowboy hat. Almost seemed naked without them. He and his two sons were farriers, men who spent all day doing the back-breaking work of cleaning all the crap out of horses’ hooves, trimming them, and putting shoes on them, all the while fighting with cranky horses, biting flies, dirt, sun, shit, wind, and other items of vocational delight. But either Harvey loved it, tolerated it, or – as most of us do eventually – gotten used to ebb and flow of the job. You do what you do, and sooner or later, you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else.

But, by and by, Harvey got to the point where he couldn’t do anything else but be sick. Anyone who’s had cancer, or loved someone through cancer, knows that eventually the sickness becomes a full-time job. He ran though the typical gauntlets of radiation and chemo. The row of pill boxes stood on the cabinet, each one a concoction of hope. He listened to the doctors’ prognosis, learned to spout medical terminology he’d never in a million years dreamed he’d know, got worse, got better, got worse, got better.

And, in time, only got worse, never better. He preferred our visits to be in his home, so that’s where we always met. The living room was dark, shades drawn, a makeshift bed arranged beside the couch, where he lay, half the man he used to be. I can still see him there; it’s one of those yesterday memories that’s over ten years old. I was in my black shirt, clerical collar noosed around my neck. He was in a old t-shirt and Wranglers. Talking softly, interrupted by ghastly coughs. I never was good with the sick. Never felt I was anyway. Never seemed I could quite say what I thought I should be saying. So I prayed the liturgy with him. Read him a psalm. Said a few words about it that I hoped would comfort him. Opened my communion case, got out two wafers – one for me, one for him – poured a little wine, and repeated what Jesus had said when he was about to die for Harvey. We ate and drank our little meal of the Lord. I pronounced a benediction and prayer over him and prepared to make my leave. As I took his hand in mine, he whispered to me, “Thank you, Lord, for coming to see me.” There was silence for a few seconds as I held his handshake, almost afraid to let go. Then he chuckled and said, “I meant, thank you, Pastor, for coming to see me.” “You bet, Harvey,” I said. “I’ll see you again soon.”

But I didn’t. Harvey died. I remember the funeral, and all the cowboys there, from all across the great state of Oklahoma. I remember the grave, and his widow, Yvonne, standing motionless by the mound of dirt, and the vast, empty western sky behind her. But what I remember most is that man mistook me for Jesus. I was just doing my job. Maybe, for once, I did it right.