Last week, on Tuesday, October 9, at 6 pm, a dear friend passed away after ten months in Duke University Hospital, receiving two lung transplants a few months apart.
My friend's name was William Stephen (Steve) Keel. He was 67 years old.
My parents had been friends with Steve and his wife Nancy since before I was born; and their 7 kids are my age or there abouts. Their family and my family, and many other families in the community, lived near each other, grew together, ate together, learned together, played together, sang together, suffered together, and existed side by side for my whole life, and continue to do so.
In recent years I began working for their family, caring for their adult daughter with a mental handicap. So my life became even more closely entwined with theirs. Their children got married, had kids, life happened. And I was close at hand to witness it.
Some years ago, Steve was diagnosed with IPF - pulmonary fibrosis. For whatever reason, his lungs were slowly beginning to fail him.
I have watched over the past four years or so, as with each passing season, it seemed to worsen and become a heavier and heavier burden... until last fall, when when he was told if he did not get a lung transplant, he would die very soon. I was there the day they returned from a visit to the doctor with this grim prognosis. He needed to get on a transplant list, and sooner rather than later. Usually the transplant process takes several months of physical therapy and waiting "in line" behind other folks also needing transplants.
And yet, being people of great faith and trust in Almighty God and his healing powers, they and the family, along with the whole Christian Community stood and believed in great faith that he would be approved for the transplant and ultimately, healed of this horrible disease.
The reality of the situation truly hit home for me personally when we were called in to the home about a year ago, and Steve told my husband what his burial wishes were. He wanted to be buried on a hillside in the woods behind their house, in a plain brown box. He laid out all the specifics for my husband, so that in the event of his death, his wife would not need to make these arrangements. He knew that Kevin had the tools, the know how, and the leadership to take this task upon him if the time came.
In November, a few weeks before Thanksgiving, he was approved for transplant, and put on the top of the transplant waiting list at Duke. He moved to a friend's home in Durham to be a quick few minutes from the Hospital when the word came that lungs were available.
He never returned home.
At the time of his moving to be loser to the hospital, my life really changed a lot. I not only took care of the daughter, now I was sitting at their home with Nancy's 96 year old mother with dementia. There is a staff of about five of us who took shifts around the clock, staying in the home and caring for the invalids there, and undertook the running of the household. Cooking, cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping, phone calls, anything and everything, we did. Around the clock.
We got the news that a lung was available on January 31, 2011. It was a match. He received the lung transplant and all went well. He even recovered well from the operation and it seemed like the healing was well on it's way and he would be able to come home.
Then there were setbacks. Problems, issues. It became evident that the second lung would need to be removed, right away. Once again, he had to wait for another lung, while his life was in the balance. A prayer vigil was held when it seemed like all was lost, and the very next day, a lung was flown in and the second surgery performed.
But he never recovered from the second transplant. He spent months in the ICU, connected to a ventilator via a trac in his neck. He was unable to eat, or drink. He was on a feeding tube. He became skeletal, as he lost weight and muscle.
I went to visit Steve around this time; in the ICU. He was frail, and weak. Thin, and aged. But his eyes were still bright, and his countenance was hopeful. His voice was weak as he told me the doctors had told him in 30 days he should be out of ICU and maybe after that, able to come home.
He recovered somewhat and was released for two weeks, and they stayed in Durham to be close to the hospital in case anything went wrong.
After two weeks, he was back in the hospital, and only went downhill after that.
Being in the home all these months, practically living there, I got the daily updates; the emails, the calls from Nancy on a daily basis with the medical updates on Steve. I knew how she was feeling; how she was coping - or not coping. I witnessed her sorrow, her fear, her despair, as well as her faith in God and strength to endure this incredibly hard time. I, and my co workers, were deeply involved with the whole process, and emotionally invested in the whole ordeal.
There had been many close calls with death, many times when I thought it was going to be the end of Steve, and always it seemed he found the strength from somewhere to pull it together and live another day.
I got a call on Monday last week from Nancy that the Doctors had told them that the Vent was prolonging his inevitable death and not preserving his life; and the decision was made to remove him from the vent and let him go to be with the Lord. The family were all on their way. The time was set for Tuesday at 3 pm. Not many people knew what was going on.
Tuesday, 3 pm came, and oh how I felt a heavy weight of sadness and sorrow for the family as I knew what was going on at that time. It was my day off and yet my heart and mind were right there. I went to a business meeting with Kevin and my Dad, and at 7 PM, my co worker and friend Cara texted me to say that he had passed away.
I felt an immediate relief for him - he was free from the unimaginable pain and suffering; but such a heavy grief for his family who had just lost their Husband and Father so soon, it seemed.
The funeral was held at the home and many people were in attendance. It was the most deeply spiritual celebration of life service I have ever attended.
As the gathering sang the hymn "Fairest Lord Jesus", a butterfly fluttered over the heads of everyone there, sitting in a circle in chairs on the lawn. I watched as the butterfly flew all around, and then soared higher and higher into the air above the trees until I could no longer see it.
The graveside service was extremely emotional. I have only ever been to one other graveside service before.
Steve was buried in the Jewish tradition, with friends and family helping to shovel in the dirt. With each family member who stepped up and shoveled in earth, my tears flowed heavier. My friend John Howell stepped up to shovel in some dirt as he began singing a hymn, and before he was finished, broke down into mournful sobs as friends Jerry and Ruffin enclosed him in their arms in comfort.
Antion, who had lived with them for ten months, and who I had become good friends with during that time, stepped up to shovel in his portion, and after the first one, couldn't stop - sobbing, he shoveled in ten or twelve more shovels full. As each friend stepped up, the shoveling in of the dirt was like a last and final offering.
Through the whole experience of the past year, I have been struck by the great love and deep connection our families have for one another. (The families in our Christian Church community here locally.)
I can go months - sometimes a year or so! - without seeing some of these friends, and when you meet up again, it is as if no time has passed at all. There is no catching up or getting to know one another all over again; you simply pick up where you left off. That is how steady and unified we are as a community and as the Body of Christ. Perfect? Heck no. But it is the unconditional love for one another that covers the "imperfections". I thank God that I am privileged to be a part of such an awesome group of people. These friends are Brothers and Sisters in Christ, and we are one big family. And this past week we lost a important and dearly loved member of our family; he will be so greatly missed. The loss is painful and deep. But I rejoice that he is with The Father and is no longer suffering with a diseased and broken body.
I will see you again, Mr. Keel. And we will have so much to talk about.