Somewhere along the way, I lost mercy, misplaced it, or perhaps, as happens with life sometimes, it just expired in me, like an old car battery.
Life can batter us sometimes, which is why it is so important to leave the future of the world to the young, they are full of energy and passion. I lost much of my passion some years ago, too much struggle and disappointment, and was then shocked to rediscover it just five or six years ago, it was a kind of rebirth and salvation, so it felt.
But along the way, there was so much disappointment and loss I think mercy just fell away, was left behind, perhaps it is not as natural as some of the other emotions we are either blessed with or cursed by.
I lost mercy again this week.
When did I find mercy again? In Luther's house, but It came back to me again this morning, in the car and on the way to the meeting I dreaded.
I think it came back to me first in my hospice work with Izzy, out in a remote village on the southern tip of the Adirondacks.
The dying man Izzy and I were visiting was alone when we arrived in his small and simple wood frame house – Luther was supposed to be in the constant company of relatives, that was the only way hospice would leave him in his house alone.
Luther loved Izzy and we often talked as he looked out his window at the beautiful mountains.
I could hear the rattle in his throat, and so could Izzy, like many therapy dogs, they love the sick but shun the dying. His brother and sister-in-law were supposed to be caring for him, and I had been doing hospice work long enough to understand immediately what had happened.
"Did they go to the bank?,"I asked Luther, a widower and former logger.
He nodded yes.
"For the car?" Again, yes.
He didn't need to fill in the details.
In the poorest homes, it was common for relatives to rush to the bank as their cousin or brother or father began to die. They would clean out his or her bank account and switch the title to the patient's car. They had to do it before they died or it would go to probate court and that would take months, even years.
They had pre-signed transfer and withdrawal forms, Luther had signed them days earlier.
So as sometimes happened, I was holding Luther's hand while he gasped his last few rattling breaths, and Izzy skulked away, he would not go near the dying, even though he had lain by Luther time and again. I called the hospice emergency line, and they told me to call the undertaker.
They warned me about a pacemaker, if Luther had one, I might feel a pulse for hours.
Luther squeezed my hand, and asked me for forgiveness, he asked me if he would see his wife Jeanette again.
I said I forgave him – there was no time to get a priest there, and it was true, I did forgive him. I said I was sure he would see his wife again.
And he squeezed his hand and thanked me, and a few minutes later, he died, just as his brother and sister-in-law came in through the door, clutching some envelopes from the bank.
After I found mercy, it felt like a hole inside of me was filling up with fresh soil and flowers, to live without mercy is a kind of grinding, gray emptiness. Your heart can turn to stone.
Mercy fills the heart and makes the soul shine with hope. There was none in that house. Luther's brother and sister-in-law said they had to go out again, they didn't seem interested in Luther, and Izzy and I stayed behind.
The undertaker and I – he was a big and jovial man with a giant Cadillac hearse, I believe he was drunk, I could smell his breath from the other side of the room – took a suit out of the closet and we dressed Luther up in his Sunday clothes. We couldn't find a pair of matching socks, the undertaker said he had plenty back at the funeral parlor.
Up in the Adirondacks, there weren't many people around, so some of us volunteers carried prayers in our pockets, just in case, and often forgave poor souls as they left the world. It was hard to get a priest to come up there at night.
The hospice nurse had been by earlier and had left a death certificate behind, because she knew Luther was dying and the county agency she worked for didn't pay overtime. She wasn't coming back that night.
The undertaker took the certificate and stuffed it into the inside pocket of his shiny old suit. He was humming all of the time, perhaps to calm his nerves.
We volunteers never claimed to be priests, we never said we could absolve sins, we had a loose relationship with God. But we could forgive people ourselves for whatever they might have done that they regretted. It didn't seem to matter at that point. It was hard to let people leave the world feeling guilty.
I remember the mercy poem I read to Luther as he was carried out to the undertaker's car, leaving his home for the last time as his relatives continued the looting of his life.
"Go before God, " I read to Luther, "and ask for mercy. Be an instrument of grace."
And that night is when I found mercy again, I forgot it from time to time, but it comes back whenever I remember Luther. It doesn't go far.