Johnny the Outlaw
When most people think of hospice, they imagine elderly people living out their last days. But we’ve had a run of young people dying of alcohol and drug abuse recently. It’s a real wake-up call when you sit at the bedside of a man or woman the same age as one of your children and watch them fade away.
Johnny was one of those. From all indications, Johnny had been a wild man. He showed some of that during his two stints on hospice care. He fought with his family, fought with his nurses, got kicked out of three nursing homes (that I know of), and had to have sitters in the hospital to keep him from getting out of bed and wandering down the hallway. At best, in this stage of his life, he tolerated others.
One day when I visited him, Johnny had become paranoid about his bank account. He pestered me over and over again to lend him my phone so that he could check his bank balance. His mother had already dealt with the issue and I kept trying to tell him that, but he wouldn’t trust any answer. It was not an appropriate use of my work phone, so I told him I couldn’t do it anyway. Well, he immediately shut me out, mumbling that he’d like me to leave.
Johnny never cut his hair. He wore long locks that made him look like the outlaw he was, especially when wearing one of his fancy cowboy hats. Tall and impossibly thin, he cut through life like a whirlwind, I was told, and the little of him that I knew confirmed that impression.
At the very end of his life, Johnny spent a few weeks — a long stretch — in the hospital. At first he became fidgety and restless as he dealt with pain and his body revolting against the abuse to which he had subjected it. Eventually, with his strength declining and the comfort of appropriate care and medication, he calmed down. He lay quietly for days and days and days.
During that time, I visited with members of his family. Previously, they had been forced to set boundaries and keep their distance, but now that it was safe for them they came and showed real love and devotion, sitting for long hours at his bedside and keeping vigil. Some even came from out of town to be with him. They told me that Johnny had been a bright, fun-loving, artistic and creative child. In his late teens, demon alcohol pounced and set him on a chaotic roller coaster ride for the next twenty years. He never lost his charm, but it was often overwhelmed by the rage and unpredictable behavior that arose from his addictions.
When Johnny died, I went and sat with his mom and sister. We prayed. I helped them understand the next steps. They asked if I would join their family for a brief viewing before he was cremated. Of course, I said.
A few days later Johnny’s mother called me and said there had been a change of plans. When funeral homes do a family viewing before cremation, they place the body in a cheap, plain box and the whole thing is a pretty sad and stark affair. She told me she couldn’t do that. She would not put her son in a cardboard box. He deserved better than that. So they were going to have a public viewing in a real casket, with flowers and time for the family to be together. I put it on my calendar.
I was surprised at how many people were there. Family from out of state had come, and there were aunts and uncles and cousins and friends — all manner of people there to see Johnny and to catch up with each other. I met Johnny’s biological father, and he showed me pictures of Johnny as a baby. “I held him when he was born,” he said with cracking voice. “I had to be here to be with him today.”
I saw lots of pictures — including many of Johnny as a child when life was good and he won everyone’s heart. I heard lots of people telling stories, and it was clear from all the laughter and fondness that Johnny did indeed have the kind of charm that made him attractive and made his story so tragic. Mom gave me a picture of him in a fancy cowboy hat, locks streaming down, mischievous look in his eye — an outlaw all the way.
At one point, they asked me to pray, and we gathered around his casket and I did. If there was a dry eye, I didn’t see one. I committed Johnny into God’s care and asked that God would comfort him for all the trials he had known in his too-short life.
I remembered the thief on the cross. He was an outlaw too.
But I’ll tell you, I believe a man is judged by what’s in his heart, and not his bank account
So if this is what religion is, a big car, a suit and a tie
With sandals and a beard, believe you had long hair too