I met “My Two Johns” when they were in bed. John No. 1 was in a hospital at the tail end of a July 4th weekend. In pain, he feared appendicitis. Within a short time it was determined that this was more serious. He had a mass in his colon and was facing surgery in the morning.
Fearing the worst, he wanted a priest to give him Holy Communion. Given the holiday, a priest was not to be found in the hospital or for a time anywhere else. A friend who knew of the situation called me and asked if I could bring the Eucharist to this young man. When I determined that it was his request and not that of his parents, I said, “Yes, give me a few minutes.”
With a quick change from casual clothes and a gas tank fill-up, I arrived at the hospital and ran into Father Bud Roland, pastor of St. John Neumann Catholic Church. He too was summoned and we both discovered that neither one of us knew the patient.
Together we hurried through the hospital labyrinth to his room. There he was in bed surrounded by his young wife, his siblings and their significant others, his parents, and old family friends. Immediately I went to John and said, “I am here for you.” Father Bud assumed pastoral leadership and we circled John’s bed in prayer.
Honest emotions, heart-felt pleas combined with hopeful outcomes for John’s health charged the air of the small space we occupied. It was surreal. When it ended, I felt privileged to be part of this intimate prayerful family gathering. Sometime later I was informed that John survived the surgery, had colon cancer and was to undergo chemotherapy
John No. 2 was flat on his back as well when I first saw him. His bed was a city bench. Wrapped in blankets head to toe and covered in newspapers, I was not even sure that under that sizable lump was a person.
I pulled my car into a parking lot, walked up to the bench and said, “Hello.” There was no reply. So I left a large chocolate chip cookie on a party napkin by his bed and wondered who this sleeping giant was. I returned again and again, hoping to meet him.
Finally one day, he opened one eye and said, “Hi.” Then he asked, “Are you the one who leaves the treats?” I admitted I was. Our relationship was very formal at this point. He slept on the bench covered in layers with only his mouth visible and I kept visiting, not waking him, but leaving a doughnut or a muffin or a cookie on a party napkin.
Eventually John moved from bench to alley. Still bundled in layers, he slept inside a cardboard box and kept his valuables in an overflowing shopping cart.
With time we began to talk, mostly centered on general topics, the weather and how we both were. He had serious skin problems and rarely wore shoes; I had a critically ill son. Perhaps our pain bonded us, talking led to hugging and seeing each other brought joy. John began each conversation selflessly asking, “How is your son?” Although strangers for some time, we gradually began to care deeply for each other.
Today, “My Two Johns” are doing well. John No. 1 is finished with chemotherapy, cancer free and back at work. John No. 2has gotten an apartment in a city home. Both men feared death for different reasons, one from cancer and the other from a ravaged life on the streets. Instead, they found God’s tender loving mercy waiting for them in the wings.
There are so many ways to love and be loved. Each instance, each relationship is an invitation to live more fully and welcome grace as it comes our way.
This all began with John No. 1 wanting to receive the Eucharist and I remember discovering that Eucharist means thanksgiving. Recently I’ve been humming a favorite hymn, “Make Us a Eucharistic People, In everything we are….” Inspired by the lyrics and “My Two Johns,” I’m now whispering again and again the purest prayer of all, “Thank you”.