The following is an essay I wrote for a friend of mine, Shane Blackshear, who hosts the podcast Seminary Dropout. I highly encourage you to check out his page and podcast. Oh – and upgrade your book budget as the authors and speakers he interviews will undoubtedly make you want to fill your shelves with their insights.
As anyone who is – or has been – on love will tell you, love isn’t just an emotion you feel for someone else. It sometimes captures you to the point where you will do just about anything for that person. It’s not always romance that produces this feeling, but it’s instead the kind of love that comes from losing yourself, which is what true love is and does. Sometimes it looks like spending hours crafting a poem or writing a song for that person. In this case it looked like smuggling a dead man’s ashes across international boundaries on a passenger jet.
I’ve been a hospice chaplain for nearly ten years. In that time I’ve met many people who have touched me in many ways. Sometimes it’s a patient, others it’s a family member. I’ve found that my patients with COPD have touched me the most.
COPD is a disease that greatly decreases one’s ability to breathe. I’ve seen it take folks who were active, hard-working people and chain them to an oxygen tank. Every day it takes a bit more of their dignity and strength. Because I’ve seen this disease take so much from people, I feel drawn to help in any way I can. You can’t meet someone with end-stage COPD without having your love and compassion drawn out of you.
Such was the case with a gentleman I had on my service a few years ago named Art. He lived at home with his wife and even though it took every ounce of strength he had for the day he always insisted on going out to get his mail every day. At one point I remember talking with Art and his wife about Newfoundland, Canada, where my wife’s family was from. Art perked up and said with bright eyes that his parents were from there, but he knew very little about it. Over the next few weeks I brought photos and maps of Newfoundland, and told stories of my trips there. We tried to find his parents’ home town on a map, but as so many towns were lost when people were forced to resettle in the 50’s and 60’s we were unable to tell if we had actually found it. Still he thoroughly enjoyed hearing of this island that was in a way his lost home.
As Art declined, it became harder and harder for him to get around, and even to talk. I felt more and more saddened by his decline, and felt less and less able to help. My heart was heavy every time I left, feeling that my prayers and companionship were becoming the most I could do for Art and his wife. One day after telling him and his wife about an upcoming trip to Newfoundland for vacation, he asked if I could take some of his ashes with me and have them scattered there. I was so happy to be able to do something concrete for Art and his family that would mean so much for him that I said yes before I even considered how this would work. But in the way that love can blind you to the reasons not to do something, I signed up. My next job was to figure out how to smuggle a container of blackish powder on an international air flight in a post-911 world.
I first called the TSA and told them my intention and asked what to do. They told me to contact the airport authority and talk to them. When I called the airport, I was told to call the airline. Of course, when I called the airline, they told me to call the TSA. Eventually, after getting no clear instructions as to how to take a package of cremated remains on an airplane, I decided to bring a copy of the death certificate and a letter from the family with what I was doing and hope for the best. Before my trip I picked up “a cup of Art” (his wife’s term) which had been put in a zip-lock bag stuffed inside of a sock and my traveling papers. I have to say that carrying the remains of my friend in a sock was pretty bizarre and surreal.
I arrived at the airline’s check-in desk with my wife and kids in tow, along with my bag of ashes tucked away in a carry-on bag. I anticipated the worst as I told the desk attendant what I was carrying. She looked at me and, after about a minute of not knowing what to do, grabbed her supervisor. I told him the same thing, and he stood there as dumbfounded as she did. They disappeared into the back and then he told me, “go…just go.” Next was the dreaded TSA screening. I fully expected to be surrounded by special agents due to my inept attempt to smuggle a nondescript sock full of what any sane person would think to be explosives onto an international flight. Seeing that you couldn’t even carry an opened bottle of water through the screening station, I saw no reason that I’d get through. I was reading my own headline as I put my bag on the conveyor and tried not to look like a terrorist.
When it popped out on the other end without even a blip I was shocked. My wife and I picked up our kids and our bags, and walked away with silly grins on our faces trying hard not to lough out loud and attract the attention we were trying hard to avoid. We got on the plane and I felt such relief that I had that same grin on my face the entire six hour trip. I realized after the fact that the ashes probably scanned as just simple carbon. There was no chemical explosive signature for sensors to pick up, and for whatever reason the officer didn’t really care what this mass was that he saw on his x-ray screen. For whatever reason, be it divine intervention or pure luck, we were free to go.
A few days later we got to one of my favorite spots on the coast of Newfoundland, a small cove that looked out into the icy North Atlantic and a small island called Fox Island that jutted out of the water like a rocky, scrub-covered bulge. I had the cup of Al in my pocket still in the sock and, while my son and cousin played on the rocks, I let the ashes out into the wind and water.
Karl Menninger wrote “love cures people: both the ones that give it and the ones that receive it.” I find this to be true in my work. Many believe that this kind of work is completely selfless, but I disagree. I am much more self-centered than many may think. I can become miserly with my time and even my gifts. I’m the type of person that doesn’t show self-centeredness by thinking of myself too highly but rather through nervous preoccupation with measuring up to others’ expectations. But the lessons I learn from ridiculously giving myself as I did with Art are the true cure for my propensity to be self-focused and self-absorbed in this way. I learned that I can’t enter into a relationship with the intention of only giving, because I can’t help but receive. What I receive is not often what I expect but always what I need. When I give love I find, just as Christ said, that it is given back to me in full measure, shaken and overflowing.