Friday it will be three months exactly; three months was how long they told him he had to live. I will not know, of course, exactly when he goes. We only met that one time.
He’d come to Seattle for treatment at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Care Center. And now he wanted to go home, back to Arizona. But here he was instead at our door. A 2-hour bus ride had taken him north of the city in hopes of finding a last remaining elderly relative, only to discover she had died. Then he landed briefly back in the local hospital and it was just a couple blocks walk from there to the church.
He wanted anointing, the Sacrament of the Sick. While we waited for the pastor to return, I invited him to my office and brought him a glass of water. Grateful, he slumped into the chair, removed his cap, and quickly drank the glass of water. He was tall, but bent, and thin, carrying too few pounds on his long frame. He had two hospital bracelets on his bruised left wrist and though his skin was lined and ashen, his hair was still brown. His name was Randall and he was it turns out, just 51 years old.
I remarked on his New York accent and yes, he was born in the Bronx. He’d been a NYC firefighter. He’d been in fact, one of the firefighters who’d responded on 9/11. He did not offer the information easily, but church walls have a way of opening folks up. It all came out. His station had responded that day and they had all rushed into the north tower when his captain asked him and his buddy, Mike, to go back to the truck for a piece of equipment. On their way out, they found a man in the stairwell with a broken leg and they’d carried him out. Soon as they’d cleared a distance from the building, the plane hit. Everyone else from their station was lost. He and Mike and other firefighters spent the next several months pulling debris and parts of bodies from the ruins. His voice broke and his eyes welled with tears. "That man on the stairs was the only one we ever saved.”
Both he and Mike were diagnosed with cancer shortly after. Since then he’d had 17 operations and been in treatment for PTSD. Three years ago, Mike had died, about the same time Randall decided to move to Arizona for whatever time he had left. Now he was dying, and he just wanted to go home. He had friends, he said, and nice little place. His car was back at "the Hutch.” He just needed to get there, and he could drive home in three days.
After Fr. Ramon returned and anointed Randall, he asked if I knew of anyone heading to Seattle who could give Randall a ride. I could easily take him myself, I said, and a 2-hour bus ride would be shortened to 45 minutes. The parish secretary suggested we gather up some food stuffs for him to take on his drive to Arizona, so we rummaged and quickly filled a grocery bag.
As we pulled out of the drive in my little yellow beetle, Randall asked if I minded if he had some of the tortilla chips in the car. "Sure,” I said, "long as you don’t have the salsa in the car as well.” We laughed, he offered me some chips, and we began telling stories. We compared our Catholic grade schools, the nuns who taught us, the rules at the dances in Catholic high schools. I came from a family of eight kids; he was the only child of older parents. "My mom had five miscarriages before me. She always said I was her little miracle.”
I remember that day as full of sunshine. We drove alongside hay fields with snow-capped mountains in the distance, over the slough that stretches out to Puget Sound, then into the thickening traffic as we neared the city. Knowing we were close to our destination, we both grew a bit quiet. Then Randall asked me about myself. Without intending to, he asked directly about something that went straight to my heart. I answered with the same candor he had given me. He nodded in understanding.
"Randall, you ever hear of prayer-swapping?” I asked.
"Sure,” he said, "like I pray for you and you pray for me.”
"Yes,” I said, "but not forever or anything like that, just for however long we decide. And then in that time, whenever one of us starts to worry about whatever is in our lives, we just pray instead for the other one. We could do that ‘til Saturday night. That’s when you plan to be home?”
"Yes, that should do it.”
"Then, how about we do it ‘til then? I will pray you home and you can pray me through these next couple days.”
"It’s a deal,” he said.
At the end of our ride, I parked the car and reached out to shake Randall’s hand. He took it in his own and covered it with the other.
"I’ll see you again, Missy. It won’t be this side of heaven, but I will see you again.”
With that he strode away and out of my life.
Randall was surely praying for me in the events of those next several days. I found myself watching the clock through midnight on Saturday, praying he found his way home safe.
But to be honest, I broke my promise. I didn’t totally stop praying when I said I would. And right now—three months after we met, I’m still praying that he makes it safely home. And hoping when he gets there, he holds the door open for me.
I don’t know how Randall knew my meaning for "prayer swap.” Perhaps he a just intuited it from the words as a kind of you-do-for-me / I-do-for-you. That’s exactly how a friend and I came up with it as young moms. The emphasis is on the short time frame, usually one day. The effect is two-fold: 1) we pray more effectively never doubting God’s answer for the other and 2) we are freed from worry as we substitute prayer for the fretting about our selves that often masquerades as prayer.
I believe this form of prayer is particularly blessed because it pleases God. Like any parent, God smiles on seeing children work together. Have you ever stopped to just enjoy watching your children when they cooperate in their efforts? An older child teaching the younger how to catch the ball. Kids clearing the table and loading the dishwasher—cheerfully and without being told to. Heads bent together over the table conspiring together to create a Fathers’ Day card. Such moments are precious in our eyes—and in the eyes of God.
Those three days after our prayer swap, I was most certainly blessed as resolution came to some important and troublesome concerns in my life. I was sustained, I knew, by the prayers of others, including Randall.
Next time someone shares a burden with you, offer to take that on for a day and offer your burden in return. You will both find your loads lightened. And God will smile.