Bright Red Socks

319I met my first hospice patient during the cold weeks before Christmas of 1989. At the time, I was also shoeless, but at least I had my socks on.

Did my red socks display jolly Santas, lush Christmas trees or a host of singing angels? I don’t remember. But I recall the snow, my December breath adrift like miniature clouds and the long tramp from the driveway to a stranger’s house. An hour or so outside of Madison, Wisconsin, the brittle night air contained the smell of cattle from the barn as my steps crunched on the icy path leading to the front door.

The door opened shortly after I knocked.

“I’m Larry,” I said. “I had called and asked–”

“Yes, of course, come inside before you freeze. We’re glad you came.”

I shook the hand of a woman I’d never met. Other members of her family voiced their greetings. An unseen Christmas tree cast splinters of red and green light against the wall. Evidence of baking, maybe cookies, teased my nose.

Someone offered to take my coat. Then, after a cleared throat, one of my greeters quietly asked, “Would you mind taking your shoes off?

They gestured toward the entryway floor. Work boots and other footwear rested on a throw rug. I shrugged off my shoes and added them to the mix. Especially in a Midwest winter, a season of mud, snow and ice, this wasn’t unusual. Removing shoes helped in the battle for a clean house.

Red SocksWith my bright red socks obvious, I padded into the living room, accompanied by more “strangers.” Everyone glanced at my feet, grinning at my dancing Santas or angelic chorus. A Christmas tree anchored a corner, across from the fireplace. There was a sofa, several chairs . . . and a hospital bed.

The patient’s wife said, eyes unblinking, voice strong, “This is John. He’s so looking forward to meeting you.”

Was his name John? I also don’t recall that detail. The names have slipped away with the thousands of visits I’ve done since then, but I’ll never forget the warmth, the friendliness and a family’s reactions to my silly socks. This was my first “informal” hospice visit. In that long-ago home, filled with strangers facing the death of John, their brother and husband and father and friend, I witnessed to God’s love. For the next hour or so, and in the handful of visits that followed, I entered into the disrupted rhythm of a family’s life—as they prepared for the death of someone they loved as much as life itself—and sought to add a dash of hope and faith and trust.

Way back then I was serving three rural Wisconsin churches—officially a three-point charge—and a member of one of my congregations asked me to visit John, a friend “down the road.” John’s impending death, in the season of Bethlehem births and shepherds waiting in the fields, would come soon according to the hospice team that cared for him.

In my visits I met nurses and social workers, the professionals serving John and his family. There were no longer efforts to cure him, but hospice helped John’s family claim moments of Joy to the World in a room crowded with Christmas decorations, a hospital bed and grief. After my second or third visit to John’s farm, the hospice team invited me to a patient care meeting at their offices. I shared about John, about his fears and his faith. It was obvious the staff supported John’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs. My first encounter with hospice affirmed what I still witness in my current work with hospice colleagues: compassion.

John’s family would joke about my bright, silly socks. The humor relaxed them, prompting old and new family stories. I don’t recall why I wore them at the first visit, other than I’d come directly from a worship service. As a pastor, I enjoyed adding to the season’s surprises, and it was just darn fun to wear garish socks and get reactions from kids (and adults).

And yet this I believe: those silly socks aided me as I tried to share God’s gifts of life. Advent, with it honest anticipation of Christmas’ deepest meanings, calls us to witness. For so many, it’s a bleak world. As with bygone Bible days, the rich still trample the poor. The powerful ignore the weak. And death haunts us.

Whatever your faith, this season opens a door. I remove my shoes. Am I not entering holy ground? I cross the threshold, into a home, desiring only and always to share compassion.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

Farm image from here.

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  1. Great nuance, Larry. Red socks and these bright lights in the darkness of thew world, as we view death, are the impertinence of light and humor. That’s why kids notice them. They also know it is a holy act to hope and giggle in the face of the darkness.

    • Gary . . . thanks! And I certainly agree: it can be a holy act to hope and giggle in the face of darkness! Thanks for reading.

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