Dear Lord: let me die before my wife.

I’m bouncing our baby daughter on my lap as she drools on a wooden rattle. Her mom makes pancakes every Saturday morning, but the baby has only recently gotten her first taste. Our middle child, age two and a half—his big brother has taught him to emphasize—marks time by the weekly passage of pancakes, which doesn’t seem all that idolatrous to me.

My wife and I are both ordained. But she alone is the Saturday priest, the celebrator of this eucharist of flour, butter, and syrup. Her sacred ingredients include bananas and coconut oil. With an expert flick of the spatula, she flips a perfect circle of golden deliciousness while humming a beautiful nothing. Music mixes with aromas in the air and I know, I know, this will not last forever:

Dear Lord: let me die before my wife.

I’m quick to add something like, Dear Lord, may she and I enjoy many, many pancakes in a long, long future together. Oh, may it be so.


My wife knows that I would like the hymn “What Wondrous Love Is This” to be sung at my service of witness to the resurrection after my death:

What wondrous love is this / O my soul, O my soul …

And when from death I’m free / I’ll sing and joyful be

I know she will cry there in the sanctuary. I pray that our three adult children will be there to hold her. They would never try to shush her—there, there, Mom—because she has encouraged them to cry their whole lives. She teaches all of us that our greatest strength is our vulnerability, our child-like faith.

Oh, may there be handsome and brilliant grandchildren clustered around her knees, their ancient glittering eyes belying the parabolic truth uttered of long ago: of such as these is the kingdom of heaven.  Oh, may my beloved cradle a great-grandchild in her arms! She can smell that baby’s head, the scent a wordless prayer rising like incense or hymns or the smell of pancakes.


I have been by her side as she birthed three children. Over the course of our ministries, she and I have been in dozens of Hospice rooms. Obvious differences with labor and deliveries, yes. And yet I am always struck by similarities: how all the attention is upon the one in the bed, making sure she is comfortable—not understanding what it is like, mind you, but trying to be as supportive as you possibly can; how there is a lot of prayer, both spoken and unspoken; how there is often cursing, and sometimes how cursing is prayer; how time stalls and starts, then stops … and somehow starts again. How there is wonder and pain, fear and hope. How the end might not be always in sight, but the end is always in mind. How love never ends.

I’ve never forgotten how a midwife whispered through one of my wife’s fearsome contractions, “Trust him coming into the world.” It seems to me that a person has some say as to the exact moment when he or she leaves this world. Some seem to wait for a loved one to arrive, others for a loved one to leave. I’ve seen the sun break through clouds and snow begin to fall. It’s amazing and painful and graceful how many people die at sunrise or sunset.

I don’t so much care about the time of day, as I only want her to be holding my hand. Oh, may it be so.


She has speculated before that she will die first. Early in our marriage, I chuckled this away, being in the afterglow of the adolescent illusion of immortality. After the recent service for my uncle, my wife repeated her wondering speculation on the drive home. Children were asleep in the minivan; the only sound was that of empty juice boxes rattling around on the floor. So I just nodded. And silently prayed otherwise.

Being in the ministry has taught me that a widow or widower will take up birding or biking or cooking or cards. If healthy, travel the country—even the world. If sickly, spend time alone in nature or in poetry, perhaps tending begonias or to Dickinson’s couplets. Evenings are the hardest, most say. To get out of the now ginormous bedroom, they take to rockers on the front porch or in the lobby of the assisted living facility, and most are grateful for company. I have talked of the recent weather, shared the Eucharist, and then talked about the possibility of different weather. People claim to spend a lot of time in bed and yet apologize for their tiredness. I have witnessed how easily the tears come with subtle reminders of loss, like a bag of peanuts or a distant train whistle or a seemingly innocuous word like “sunrise”. For those left behind, the sun, rising and setting gently between their words, affords a glimpse of that lonely road.


And when from death I’m free / I’ll sing and joyful be And through eternity / I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on …

While I really don’t think she’ll be able to sing at the service, I would hope to bring her a little joy from beyond the veil. Is there a quota on heavenly signs allotted to individual souls? Are spouses clamoring in The Beyond to get a double rainbow placed in perfect view of the surviving partner? In timelessness, do you still have to wait in line? How about the flick of an angel wrist to cause a pancake to appear in the shape of a heart? And what about blue herons?

When we were struggling with infertility, she and I used to take long walks by the New River. Once a blue heron soared into flight just as we rounded a bend. Its broad, beating wings were a sign to us of coming life. Could I make another heron happen for her in my life after life?

Life After Life is the name of a well-known book about the experiences of people declared clinically dead who nevertheless came back breathing. Across cultures and religions, people have described almost exactly the same occurrences: a lifting from the body into a dark tunnel above. But there is no fear. Only a bright, warm light visible at the far end. And a presence—not a person exactly—but someone familiar in the light at the end of the tunnel, perhaps waiting to usher the deceased into … where? What exactly? What wondrous love is this?


But then shall I know even as also I am known (1 Cor 13:12).

I would also like for the famous Thirteenth Chapter to be read at the service of witness to the resurrection after my death. This gorgeous declaration of enduring love was not a part of our marriage ceremony. We were married in our seminary’s chapel, which is round, lacking a center aisle. It was her idea that we would both enter with our parents from opposite ends and meet in the middle. The processional began, and I hustled forward. Mom on one arm and Dad on the other, I was all but dragging my parents in tow. We rounded the first pew ahead of her …

My wife’s energy came around the bend and met us before she did. There was an oncoming force, as palpable to me as it was invisible. And it was her. Or, some part of her; the Her of her. In that moment, all other sounds and sights and awareness faded away, and all I knew was that I knew she was coming to me. Oh, may I once again meet her! Oh, may it be so.