Wednesday, January 31, 2007


As a hospice chaplain, I look into the eyes of the dying every day. That gaze into the dark center of each one leaves me to wonder at the process of the leaving of life – the breathing out of energy from the vessel that it animated and the transformation of a living being into a body to born away. There, the eyes are moist and quick with life and here they fix onto something out of sight. Here they flick back to my face and there they look beyond again and again until they become frozen and cloudy.

It fascinates me because the drying of the dying eyes reminds me of the slippery beginnings of life when this same body was squeezed into the world and startled into its state of being eliciting streams of tears from that time to this. What is it that leaves leaving this person a dried husk? Is it just the physics of cellular functioning that ceases in a reversal of living? I want it to be more than that. I hope for my patient’s sake there is more to it than that but when I’m truthful, I want it to be more for myself. It’s my own mortality that I face when I look into those mirrored lenses of the soul. Sometimes I’m afraid that there is merely the cooling of my body and the exchange of the heat of life with the atmosphere when I die. All this learning, all this experience, all the hot flow of living surely cannot just fizzle out like a sparkling pyrotechnic.

Materialistic science says that it is so. There is no more to life than what can be observed. Yet, as I observe the cooling of bodies, I see changes in the space around them. I can observe others moving around the space they once occupied, shifting in and out, filling in here, emptying out there. On the surface of the bereaved family and community, the changes are social and are measurable. Anthropologists and sociologists study the matter constantly measuring the differences between cultures, writing paper after paper on the shifting family systems at and after times of death. But the movement I see speaks to me of deeper changes in the movement of energy and existential vacuum created from the drawing out of a being from its place in time and space.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Shodan's Prayer

Years ago when I was in law enforcement, I studied the martial arts in a very traditional style and it took 12 years of hard work to achieve Shodan (first degree black belt). Soon after I tested for that rank with my Master, George Chartier, I wrote this poem.

Shodan’s Prayer

Though I master a martial art
so that I may pluck a flower
and cut with the pedal's edge
and crush bone
with its tender stem.

Though martial greatness I achieve,
That I might deflect
an attack with
only the blossom's fragrance.

Instead, I pray,
That I might master myself
so that the flower
might never be plucked
nor the bone crushed

That both may live
to feel
the morning dew
and the sun's
gentle warmth.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Jelly Bean

The phone tickled my side and I knew what it meant. Super Social Worker called me from the Acute Care Unit in Pediatrics and said, “It’ll only be a few minutes and they want you here.”
“OK. I’m on the way.”

My little Honda Hybrid isn’t made for speed and I don’t speed anyway but it handles nicely. The trip to the hospital from across town was – shall we say – well done. As I puffed my way from the parking deck, my mantra was, “Hang on Jelly. Please. I wanna see you before you go. Hang on Jelly.” When I steamed into the room, I saw grandma holding her and grandpa sitting on the bed opposite and well with in hugging distance. Jelly was dying.
I made it in time to say goodbye.

Jelly was a phenomenal little girl. She was two and a half when her life ended. What made her so special was that she wasn’t supposed to live through the day she was born. In fact, her rather high-powered specialists declared her un-alive. After all she had no brain. Well, she had a little nubbin of one but she was really um – you know – sort of alive. It didn’t make sense to the white coats who live by the numbers. When her little body shook and shivered, they declared that it wasn’t a seizure because she didn’t have a brain and seizures were brain activity. It kinda reminds me of something young boys say specifically to nauseate young girls; “Hmm, looks like it, smells like it, tastes like it, good thing I didn’t step in it.” The kicker was when they refused to make her an organ donor because she couldn’t be declared brain dead - she didn’t have a brain. Now I know there are other issues around that but give me a break! Sooner or later we have to get our heads out of the numbers, come down out of sterile labs, wipe the florescent light out of our eyes and get a little sense. Some people just need to go ahead and step in it. It doesn’t hurt a damn thing, fellas and it washes off.

Really, Jelly had great care from her medical team but what sustained her was the power grid she lived in. Her caregivers were her grandparents. They arrived at a hospital soon after her birth near here and found Jelly in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit; her basinet pushed to the side. When they wanted to know why she was over there out of the way, the rather calloused and insensitive staff just shrugged and said that she was dying. The grandparents were incredulous. This beautiful baby didn’t look dead to them – in fact, she looked pretty good and after ‘lighting into the staff and raising enough hell to rattle the gates of heaven,' Jelly got the attention she deserved.

That’s where this power grid came together because M&M (grandparents) immediately began tapping the resources they needed to keep Jelly alive. She got a hospice team from us and even got the best pediatric nutritionist in the state, my wife, Sweet Dottie Ann. I didn’t know Jelly then and Dottie Ann never told me who she was but I heard plenty about her anonymously. When I got my promotion to Peds, Jelly was the first patient Dottie and I could talk about over coffee in the morning. The power grid included M&M’s family, church and a collection of smoochy little girls that M&M have flitting around that house lovin’ and huggin’ on Jelly enough to wear the skin off of her. The fact is that the grid she lived on was charged with love of all sorts, styles and from many sources.

As a pastoral counselor I was fascinated to watch a family so healthy that it could not only overcome its dysfunction but also turn it into something healing and life sustaining. As a minister I was often staggered by the way I saw the kingdom of Christ operating around a little girl with no brain and no hope to live a typical life. As a philosopher and post-modern theologian, I couldn’t take my mind off of the existential meaning of the single-minded attention M&M gave to this little one’s life. As a man, I admired the sensuality of this couple that could nurture, protect and offer love as they did.

We buried Jelly today. I was invited to “Make some comments.” I worked for hours on a trip to Raleigh and back last night and even in spare moments while I was with some friends. I sorted ideas, the poetry of her life and the meaning of Jelly’s two and a half years to come up something that could match the profundity of what I experienced in that home. When I tackled it again this morning, I knew I couldn’t begin to say enough. All I could do was say something that might make my hearers pay attention to the power of the love of God that pours through us when it has a chance.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

CKRW Radio Yukon

Most Americans are ridiculously ignorant about Canada and Canadians. I would be as well except that Dottie and I were fortunate enough to have made a life-long friendship with a Canadian couple. They’d moved to Winston-Salem with their two young sons to attend Piedmont Bible College (now known as Piedmont Baptist College).

We were attending First Alliance Church at Wright and Patria Streets in Winston and I mentioned to one of the members that I was having trouble with our well. He said that Dale might be able to get inside the bored well to loosen the clamp holding the plastic pipe that descended into the 30’ well. I didn’t know him but when I was directed to him, it was obvious why he was suggested. Neither of us had expanded into middle age at that time and he was built smaller than me. I held my breath when I asked him if he’d climb down into my well thinking that anybody with any sense would laugh me out of the church house. He laughed, if I remember correctly, but now I know enough about him to know that it wasn’t all about the craziness of the idea. He more than likely laughed because the idea intrigued him.

A couple of days later when I’d carefully suspended a ladder by a ¾” galvanized pipe in the well, Peggy and Dale came out to have supper with us. I was scared to death that I’d asked this perfect stranger to hang himself over a 30-foot well and risk his life to loosen a screw for me. But after supper, he snaked himself down, down until he was within reach of the clamp. Once he got down there, I started handing him tools and he started handing me wise cracks.

The clincher in our friendship came when I said, “OK here’s a screwdriver. Please don’t drop it It’s my favorite…”
“Uh, oh.”

Thirty feet is a long way down and the silence between his “Uh, oh” and the kersplunck of the screwdriver hitting water was long enough to build the kind of tension that makes for a very good joke. “Screwdriver” came out of my mouth with perfect timing just after it hit water. It released all of the tension in me about asking this really good guy and perfect stranger to do this really hard and dangerous job. I nearly died with laughter. It struck me so funny that I became weak with the perfect humor of our spontaneous little vaudeville act over a hole in the ground in my front yard.

Our friendship has survived over 30 years and about 3,000 miles of distance. He eventually got a Masters in counseling and moved to the Yukon. It’s amazing for me to talk to him. In many ways, our friendship is suspended in time. When I hear his voice on the phone or read something he’s written, it’s like he’s still sprawled on my living room floor playing Space Invaders on the Atari. In other ways there’s a distance that can’t be mended. We both have suffered wounds that have scarred over. We were young in body and soul and now we’re older with many miles and Kilometers logged in different places over different roads.

I’m sitting here in my study writing this while CKRW (Radio Yukon) pumps Rock ‘n Roll through a stream of electrons into my computer. I enjoy the ads coming from businesses there in Whitehorse and the weather reports (it’s clear and 18 below right now, a virtual heat wave). I listen to that station to remind me of he and Peggy and how much Dottie and I love them. It also connects me to many other things that I want to write about in this blog that bridge the ravines of heartache and trouble in my life.


The Wednesday before Thanksgiving last fall was cold and rainy. I was looking for a place to do the paper work from my last visit and pulled into the Community Mosque on Waughtown Street in Winston-Salem. The wind rocked my little Hybrid car and the rain ticked at the windows in a way that made me squint my eyes at the glass to see if maybe it was sleet. But it was cozy in there and I shut the car off, set up my laptop and clicked out a report while Aretha Franklin pelted out gospel on my CD player.
Some time later, as I snapped the computer shut, a car swung into the parking lot driven by a good sized man wearing the sort of skull cap on his head that made me think that he might be a member of the mosque. In times like these, it might be a good idea to check out strangers parked beside one’s mosque and I figured it would be smart to accommodate such security measures. I touched the button to roll the driver’s side window down. Nothing happened. I felt a little confused and reached for the ignition key to start the engine hoping the man wouldn’t get the idea that I was acting suspicious. Nothing happened and a little feeling of nausea accompanied the realization that I’d run the battery down and the car wouldn’t start.
I popped the door open and the man said, “Hi, having trouble?”
“Yea, I’m Ken Bradstock. I’m a hospice chaplain. I just pulled in here to write a report on my last visit and I think I ran my battery down.” He introduced himself and asked if I had jumper cables. When I said that I didn’t but would call Triple A, he said that another member was coming and he might have a set. He said that he’d pulled in to see who I was because they’d had some vandalism lately.
Another car pulled into the mosque, this one bearing a grinning man who jumped out and wrapped his arms around me. “Ken Bradstock. I was just talking about you this week!” It was my old friend, Kahalid Griggs. “Let’s go up in the mosque, man. It’s cold.”
I’d never been in this particular mosque and I stood at the door to the worship room, admired its simple beauty and felt a sense of the holy in that place. We talked for a short time and I dug my AAA card out of my wallet and turned to the door to get a good signal on my phone. “I guess I’ll call and get a jump, Kahalid,” I said.
“That’s alright, he’s got a set.” Kahalid pointed out the door and there was the first man carrying a brand new set of jumper cables through the wind and rain.
My mouth dropped open and I said, “Did he walk up to the Dollar Store and buy a set?”
Kahalid shrugged. “I guess he did.”
When my Hybrid purred to a start, I asked him what I owed him. “He grinned and said “Community Mosque is about service. You don’t owe me anything.”
As a hospice worker I’m usually on the giving side of these kinds of exchanges but as the cold rain stung my face, the kindness of those two men warmed my heart. I felt like we were together in a brotherhood of service. All I could do is thank them and that seemed to be enough.
When thousands of the members of this community thank the staff of hospice for our spirit of service and give so generously to keep us going, it’s enough. We need to serve you as much as you need us. It’s our calling. And just as those two generous followers of Mohammed offered service to this follower of Jesus, we find ourselves in a brotherhood of hospitality, generosity and service that makes our community rich above all material standards. It’s truly how the kingdom of God works.