The first thing I learned is was from a young Black man who was dying. I refer from time to time to “near death experiences” but I have only rarely encountered such things in my practice, at least in the sense most people think of them. I haven’t had many patients who have experienced ecstasis (out-of-body experience) during anesthesia, or due to trauma. But people get dreams that often contain much the same content in the days and weeks leading up to death. It’s so common, you can use it as a tool for prognostication. You can use it as a counseling tool, because these dreams typically lay out the person’s conflicted attitude about death. The problem and the solution are typically presented together in the same dream.
The specific dream in this case was the image of the patient’s deceased father, standing with Jesus under a tree. They were gesturing to the patient to join them, and they were laughing.
The patient was kind of hung-up on the on the premise. “Wait a minute… does this mean…” Yes, that’s what it means. Now let’s think about the emotional content of the dream; what did it feel like. And of course this was something so ineffably beautiful he could only describe it with tears. Problem, solution. Questions?
This dream stimulated thought about liberation theology, based in part on a series of conversations I had with another dying patient. She was either 100 or 102 years old; apparently she lied on her marriage license years ago, and sometimes stuck to her story and sometimes didn’t. This was another patient who had been referred with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, which was incorrect. Once she started talking, it was obvious that she had the opposite problem. She understood exactly what was going on, a bit too well.
Once I got her out of her shell, we had a great time. She told me all kinds of stories about growing up in Florida a century ago. I wandered through the same parts of the state when I was a kid, and it was interesting seeing this land and culture from a different cultural perspective, as I was a White Scotch-Irish boy from the south, and she, a southern Black girl. One day I asked her what it was like to live through the civil rights movement, and she regaled me with stories. These were inspiring stories, told with great humor. Every one made you want to stand up and do high fives all around.
Eventually she came around to talking about the theological basis for the liberation movement. In spite of what you might hear these days, the civil rights movement has always been faith-based; and in the US, it was based upon the principles of Christianity. My patient explained these things at length, giving examples from both the Old and the New testaments. For example, she brought out the story from John chapter 8 about the woman who was to be stoned for adultery. Last time I read the Bible was when I was in elementary school, so she recited it — verbatim, from memory, King James version — to refresh my memory. She submitted that I probably thought the key idea was “go and sin no more,” but suggested I focus instead on the part that says, “then neither do I accuse you,” and I would understand better something about God’s attitude toward oppression. I thought that was a brilliant insight, personally.
I am of the opinion that Christianity is a key component of African-American culture, regardless of whether or not a person is an actively-practicing Christian, because of the fact that the liberation movement is and always has been based in Christian theology. I like to believe that the ancestors of modern-day Black Americans first heard these words when they were held in bondage, and that they found messages for themselves in those forbidden words. That we cannot understand why God’s precious children might suffer so, but that in the long run, what comes around goes around, and that a special place in heaven is implied; and that some of us will be beneficiaries of a promise made to our ancestors hundreds of years ago. And that the reward will have something to do with laughter.
I remember this woman laughing as she told me stories. Joyful laughter, as when she told the story of her own self as a wide-eyed 12-year-old on a cross-state bus trip, stopping in some nasty little redneck town down near Okeechobee, where she stirred up a ruckus by sitting down at the counter to order a fricken hamburger, and it took an old white guy to stand up to two big bubbas and say, it’s my diner and I’m serving this lovely young lady right here. And he did. The way she tells the story, he served her as if she were a princess in a royal family. And maybe she was; I’d believe it.
Or maybe he was a Christian himself, and saw something deeper. For her last surviving parent, her mother, had died when my patient was a little girl. She recalled being called into her mother’s room in her final moments. They kept a basin of water outside her mother’s room, and my patient had splashed water on her face to hide the fact she had been crying. Mothers being what they are, she saw through this, and told her not to cry. Don’t leave me, my patient had begged. I’ll be alone. But her mother said she would never be alone, because Jesus would be with her. She was at the age where the allegorical content of that statement went flying right over her head, and she went through her life literally believing that Jesus was literally taking care of her. Which I suppose explains the joy she shows when she speaks about matters of injustice. She sees no reason for fear or despair, and no doubt which side will win.
Didn’t seem to bother her that she couldn’t see Him. Maybe because He’s so good-looking, huh? “Got to be good-looking cuz he’s so hard to see,” Lennon said. Which brings me to the second thing I learned this week. Apparently, if you’re a Christian, you’ll see Jesus before you die. But you won’t be able to see His face.