Sitting by his bed I held his bandaged, swollen hand in mine gently but firmly. He knew I was there with him; I could feel his hand grip mine in response. He didn’t look much like the friend I had known for the past five years; the cancer had bloated his entire body changing him almost entirely. As I sat there my heart wrenched inside hearing his labored breathing, watching his body shiver and shake with each intake of breath and hearing his moan or cry of pain as he exhaled. Cancer is a torture chamber that traps the soul and spirit for a length of time imposing unbelievable pain until the victim wishes with each breath that it would be their last. As I sat there I couldn’t help remembering.
“Mladen has lung cancer.” The email read. “He will not live long unless as miracle happens”.
All I could do was stare. As the day wore on the shock became truth and a deep sadness filled my being. I desperately wanted to see him but I had just arrived in Bosnia at the time and wouldn’t be back in Croatia for three more months. I could just hope he would live long enough for me to get back so I could see him one last time. I remembered back to my second trip to Croatia when I stayed on the same apartment floor as Mladen. He had kindly opened his place to me so I could fix my morning coffee and had come to kill the giant cockroaches in my room. He was always smiling and would often nod his head when he laughed. His warm personality quickly endeared people to him, which is why he was a spiritual father to many of the new converts in the church.
Days wore into weeks and then into months and soon I was back in Croatia again. Only days after I arrived Mario said to me,
“I am going to see Mladen today.”
“Can I go see him with you?” I asked eagerly.
“Sure, just be ready to leave when Vatroslav gets here with Mladen’s mother.”
The drive was long but beautiful. There is something about countries that have survived, as Croatia has, for more than a thousand years. Their landscape shows the passing of time; small villages gather around tall spires pointing us back to simpler days before modern transportation made it possible to travel easily between towns, cities, and even countries. We arrived at the hospital, an old castle that had been converted into a center for patients with tuberculosis and cancer. Stepping inside the door we were greeted with a smell that cannot be forgotten though we will wish the rest of our life we could forget. It’s a smell of death.
“Can death have a smell?” I wondered to myself.
I didn’t have to continue wondering for long, I just knew, it had to be death that smelled like that.
Room 154: a stark room with 3 beds, a small table, a handful of chairs, no TV, and no pictures; boring. Yet there was a prevailing sense of God in the room. One wanted to cry for the loss of a friend but one couldn’t for all the joy that was felt knowing that He would soon see the face of the One that had saved him from a miserable life of grief and pain. I could not be sad about that; in fact, I wished it was me sitting there only moments from eternity.
There was small talk, teasing and laughter. Mladen’s mother fussed over him pulling at the blankets and adjusting his pillows just like any mother would for her child. You could see the sorrow etched on her face as she helplessly watched her son die. She had lost one child already, and a husband, now the last remaining piece of what was once her family was slipping from her fingers like sand. What could she do? Tears began to run make their way down the creases in her cheeks.
“Mama, why are you crying?” Mladen asked gently as if to say, “Why would you cry for me? The best day of my life lies just ahead of me!”
But she didn’t understand because she still does not yet know the One who transformed her son from an alcoholic man on antidepressants to the joyful son whose hands reached out to offer hope and healing to so many others like himself.
Soon the goodbyes were said and we were heading back home, our lives would continue days quickly slipping into weeks but for Mladen each day seemed like a year. Unable to walk or get out of bed he could do nothing but sit and stare at empty walls; he had only his Bible to keep him company, and this is why there was such a presence of God in the room with him for he spent days communing with the One he would soon see face to face. I wonder what went through his mind as he sat there for hours on end knowing that soon he would see the face of his Savior.
Only a few weeks later here there I sat once again by his side. This time there was no small talk, no teasing, no laughter.
“How could a short span of time have changed him so?” I couldn’t help wondering.
Then Mario walked in the room.
“The nurse said he would die tonight or tomorrow.” He said quietly and sorrowfully.
Tears gathered in the corners of my eyes and threatened to spill down my face as I inwardly prayed,
“Lord, take him now. Please. You can see the horrible pain he is in. I don’t want to let my friend go but his body is suffering so. Please just take him home.”
We tried to talk to him and in moments of coherence he would be able to answer us but his words were slurred from the drugs and after a few moments he would lose consciousness again.
Helpless and filled with pain Mario and I knew we had to leave. I kissed his head and said my final goodbye somehow knowing this would be the last time I would see my friend alive.
“Goodbye, Mladen. I love you.” I said and walked out the door.
So Mladen, my friend, I know you’re in pain and your body is weary and tired. It’s time for you to go; this is the day you have waited for; your graduation day. As you step from this life into eternity and see the face of the One who saved you, changed you, and made you new our hearts will go with you. So soar on, dear brother, soar on the wings of eagles to that mansion prepared for you. You have labored hard, you have completed the task He sent you to do and there are new brothers and sisters to carry on the legacy you leave behind. Go home, dear friend, and soon we will meet again on the other side.