Altar Call - Opelika-Auburn News
Walter Albritton
August 12, 2001

Saying goodbye to a dear friend as the evening shadows fall

The message that I read on a Thursday afternoon brought me to tears. It had come by e-mail. I hit the reply button and realized I could not see the screen. So I sent back this message to my friend Bob: "I am in tears now. More later."

I knew I had to call but I put off dialing the number until last Tuesday night. When Bob answered I was immediately encouraged by his positive spirit. "We are doing fine, considering the circumstances." He was composed. I was not. Nervously I tried to carry on a decent conversation. It was not easy.

After a few minutes Bob handed the telephone to his wife, who greeted me as graciously as always. We talked about living and dying, and about old times. We expressed our gratitude to each other for the difference our friendship had made for many years. When I told her goodbye, I wondered if I would ever hear her voice again.

After struggling with cancer for seven years, Bob and Eugenia finally embraced the advice of her oncologist and called in Hospice. They had listened to her kind doctor say those dreaded words, "We have done all we can for you. We suggest now that you turn to Hospice." Painfully, but realistically, the decision was made.

No more radiation. No more chemotherapy. No more waiting, wondering, hoping, and praying. The time had come now to prepare to die, with dignity, at home. A hospital bed was brought in because it makes things easier for everyone.

Bobís message had explained all this, but even more he had praised his wife for her courageous spirit and her strong faith in God. She was ready to face the end in the same way she had faced years of battling cancer, with calm assurance that the Fatherís love would get them through this dark valley.

Bob and Eugenia met when they were teenagers. After Bob returned from serving in the Navy during WWII, they were married. Soon Bob became a United Methodist preacher and with Eugenia by his side they pastored churches in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida. Together they served churches large and small with distinction. Bob became known as one of the most effective preachers in our conference. He was represented widely for his strong, biblical preaching in a style that left no one wondering where he stood on the issues of the day.

My own friendship with them has spanned nearly 40 years. Bob and I were instant friends from the day we met. I donít know how to explain the chemistry of such a relationship. I simply know that our minds and hearts often beat as one, and we realized quickly that we enjoyed each otherís company. It happens with some people; it does not happen with others. Why I do not know.

I can offer a clue. Years ago I found myself nursing a resentment toward some people who had mistreated me. Whenever Bob and I got together I would rehearse this painful situation, wanting his understanding of my feelings. Finally one day as we were having lunch in a local restaurant, Bob interrupted me to say, "Walter, donít you think it is time for you to put that mess behind you and move on?"

In the stunned silence that followed his question, I realized two things. One, it was time, no, past time for me to give up my resentment and my compulsion to talk about my hurt. Second, I realized that in Bob I had a friend who loved me enough to tell me the truth. His comment was blunt, but not abrasive, and instead of preaching to me, he simply waited for me to respond to his challenging question.

The next moment was a turning point in my life. I decided then and there, in that small cafť, to give up my resentment and stop wearying my friends by talking about the situation. I said to Bob, "You are right. It is time, and I am done with opening this old wound again and again." I thanked him for saying what he had said.

That day I won a victory over a nagging resentment. I stopped talking about that mess. And my life has been immeasurably richer because of that decision.

As I talked with Eugenia last Tuesday night I thanked her again for "making my appointment to Trinity." It was Eugenia who suggested that the bishop and the cabinet consider sending me to pastor Trinity in 1989. Bob was serving as my district superintendent then, and the bishop made the appointment, but the idea came from Eugenia. She laughed and said, "That is the only appointment I ever made." And I am eternally indebted to her for putting my name before the cabinet and the Trinity Church.

As our rather tender phone conversation ended Tuesday, I lost the battle to keep back the tears. The grapefruit in my throat kept choking me for several minutes. My wife and I were unable to speak for several minutes. I was emotionally drained.

I donít know when death, our final enemy, will come for Eugenia. Bob and Eugenia do not know either. I do know that when the end comes, Eugenia will not be afraid. She is fearless and ready to wake up in the arms of Jesus.

Such an attitude can be explained in only one way. That is what faith does for a child of God. Eugenia and Bob have faith, and God has them. And when the end does come, it will not be the end but the beginning of a richer, fuller life in the nearer presence of the Father.

I called to comfort them. Instead they encouraged me. I hope that my faltering words conveyed to them something of the deep gratitude I have for the gift of their friendship. I wish I had thought to thank them for their courageous example in facing death. But there will be time to talk about that later when we meet again on the other side. Until then, we will go on singing.

The evening shadows do fall. The night comes. But the night does not win. The dawn breaks. The morning comes. And, thank God, the morning wins.