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A chaplain to lean on

PLANT CITY — Sometimes he wonders why he's here. Is he saying the right thing? Making a difference?

People facing death ask him why God would make them suffer so. They want to know what heaven is like.

"There are times," says the Rev. Brad Beyer, a hospice chaplain, "when I just don't feel I have the answers."

Some don't have any questions. Some, he says, "just want to talk about fishing."

Take Mr. Williams, the man Beyer is heading to see this afternoon. He used to be a plumber, but is now tethered to an oxygen tank. Two years ago, doctors gave him six months to live. What does that do to a man, having all that time to think about dying? The chaplain visits him every month. He's never sure what Mr. Williams will say.

• • •

Beyer is a slight man with cropped gray hair, a salt-and-pepper mustache, rimless bifocals and a soothing voice that makes everything sound like a prayer. He nods a lot, as if he understands. He's 52, lives in Lakeland with his wife, Cindy, and beagle, Lucy. His twin sons and daughter are grown.

Years ago, when Beyer was a teenager at a church camp, he decided he would become a minister. "It just seemed like something I could do."

He graduated from divinity school at Texas Christian University, led a Disciples of Christ church in Ohio for 15 years, then moved his family to Florida to direct a camp for Christian kids with disabilities. When that folded in August 2005, someone said he should look into LifePath Hospice. They needed chaplains to talk to people with terminal illnesses, to comfort their families.

It wasn't a calling, Beyer admits. It was just a job.

At first.

• • •

When the chaplain turns into the driveway of Hartford "Bill" Williams' house in Plant City, two old dogs tear across the yard, throw themselves at the fence.

"Hey, Rusty!" Beyer calls, reaching over the gate to pet the panting chow. To the poodle he says, "And hi to you, Precious!"

A thick man with thinning hair and navy suspenders shuffles onto the porch. Oxygen tubes protrude from both nostrils, wind around his neck like a bolo tie, and trail behind him through the door. He waves the chaplain inside.

Beyer follows the dogs up the steps, across the living room and into the kitchen. "So how you doing?" he asks.

The man reaches across the tiny table, grabs the remote and mutes his TV. The Bonanza re-run goes silent. "I don't feel bad," says Williams, 71, whose lungs are shutting down. "I just can't breathe. But I guess I'm as good as I'll ever be."

Williams settles himself in a wooden chair. Beyer sits next to him, placing his worn Bible between them. "So how's your family doing?" asks the chaplain.

Williams is divorced and lives alone with his dogs. He had five children, but his oldest son was killed while driving drunk — a year after Williams got sober. His four grandchildren live a few hours away. A caretaker looks after him during the day.

"Family's all right, far as I know," he tells the chaplain. "I see you more than I see them." He starts to laugh, but it turns into a cough.

• • •

Medicare and private insurers began paying for hospice care 25 years ago, and since then the number of people using hospice services has soared. About 1.3 million people died under hospice care last year.

More than 70 percent had asked for a chaplain.

"So many people don't belong to a church or synagogue, so they don't have their own priest or rabbi to be there," Beyer says. "Maybe they don't believe in organized religion, but they still want to feel something spiritual at the end."

Beyer is one of 10 chaplains working for LifePath Hospice. He travels throughout Hillsborough County, visiting four or five patients a day, driving to estates and mobile homes, walking the halls of nursing homes and hospitals. Sometimes patients ask for him. Sometimes their families request his help.

He has ministered to more than 200 people — Catholics and Jews, Buddhists and Muslims — and has been with at least a dozen people as they died.

"I'm not here to convert anyone," he says. "I'm just here to let them share and ask, and try to help them deal with whatever issues come up."

Sometimes a patient needs to mend fences or see an estranged son. Sometimes a patient is eager to die and be reunited with a long-gone spouse. Sometimes they're scared and don't feel worthy of God. Often they're angry. Or sorry. Or wracked with guilt about leaving their families.

Sometimes at the end, the patient wants to talk about life instead of death. Sometimes they can't talk. Sometimes Beyer just holds their hands.

• • •

After a half-hour at the kitchen table, after talking about dogs and gardening and Bonanza, Williams tells the chaplain, "That's what I like about you. You're not like most of them preachers. You set that Bible down and just come to talk." He reaches down and strokes Rusty, who has wrapped around his feet. "If you was preaching hard-core religion to me, I'd ask you to leave.

"But these days not too many people come by just to talk."

And when they do, Williams says, they're always women. The hospice nurse, the social worker, the aides. They're all great. But sometimes you just want a guy around to talk football.

"Yeah," says the chaplain. "We can talk about whatever."

They talk about addiction: Williams traded the bottle for The Young and the Restless. The chaplain says his dad was a drinker, too. "Me?" Beyer says. "I love Star Trek."

"I never seen that."

Williams picks up his poodle. The chaplain glances at the muted TV.

For a minute, maybe more, they listen to the refrigerator hum and the dogs pant and the wall clock ticking off what's left of their time.

Suddenly Williams blurts out, "The only thing I think about … " His voice trails off. He tries again. "I worry about it all the time … going to sleep. What if I take a nap and just don't wake up? That's why I don't sleep much. I don't want to die."

He hugs his dog and seems to speak to it instead of the chaplain. His voice is raspy. He keeps coughing, struggling to catch his breath. "I don't think it's going to happen like in the movies, with trumpets and angels coming to get me," Williams says. "I got my peace with God. But I don't think I'll be going through no light to get to him."

"It's hard to know … " the chaplain starts.

"I know how it'll be," Williams says. "When you're gone, you're gone. So I don't know why I'm worried."

He looks up at Beyer. "I mean, I'd just like to see the Bucs play one more season."

The chaplain nods knowingly, strokes his battered Bible and says softly, "Amen."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825.

A chaplain to lean on 02/21/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 25, 2009 10:50am]
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