Rudy was a devout atheist who regularly attended the first Presbyterian Church. Actually, that’s where we met, sort of. It’s not that Rudy was looking to convert from atheism – he just loved to sing and being in the Presbyterian choir gave him a chance to share the beauty of his deep bass voice.
The pastor was out of town one Sunday and had asked me to preach for her. The next day Rudy knocked on my office door at the hospital. After a brief introduction I thought he had come because he had been captivated by the brilliance of my sermon. I soon discovered he was on a mission and this interview was a test.
During the sermon I had mentioned I was a hospice chaplain. Rudy had come to check out my views on advance directives and set me straight if I didn’t see things as he did.
His wife had died after years of dementia and the toll it had taken on him and his children (both emotionally and financially) caring for her body long after her mind, memories, and anima had vacated was devastating. After retiring from a distinguished career of psychiatry, Rudy now spent his days working to help people plan for their death. He had experienced firsthand the importance of making your preferences known about the kind of medical care you would and would not want to have done if you could no longer communicate for yourself. I passed Rudy’s test.
He became a dear friend and mentor. Rudy was one of those rare individuals who seemed to have shed his ego and passionately enjoyed his living. Well into his ninety’s, he continued to learn, to read, to sing, to travel, and to enjoy the pleasures of sex with his beloved partner. Rudy was simply alive while always having his dying in view.
The week before he died he called me to his home and asked if I would give the eulogy at his memorial service. After pointing out the incongruity of praising an atheist in a Presbyterian church – I humbly agreed. He chuckled and handed me a file folder containing what he wanted me to say. Now the folder contained the distilled data of his richly lived life; his resume, his accolades, and his distinguished achievements. All facts. But what was missing from the folder was the delight he exuded when learning new discoveries about how the brain works, the passion in his eyes as he shared his thoughts about living and dying, the joy on his face while singing in a choir. What was missing from the folder was the way he made you feel special when you were with him.
Early on in our relationship Rudy sent me a letter in which he quoted Johannes Brahms from one of the pieces he loved to sing, The German Requiem. Words Rudy’s life made very real.
“Lord, make me to know the measure of my days on earth,
to consider my frailty that I must perish.”