My name is Ken Hart. Stories are a big part of my work world. I am a hospice Chaplain and I have found that the people I care for relate very well to stories. Below is one of these stories and an explanation for how I apply it to those I care for. The kind of needs I address day after day are universal and I am confident that this story and its explanation will be helpful to everyone.
The Old Fisherman
A True Story by Mary Bartels Bray
Our house was directly across the street from the clinic entrance of John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. We lived downstairs and rented the upstairs rooms to out-patients at the clinic. One summer evening as I was fixing supper, there was a knock at the door. I opened it to see a truly awful looking man. "Why, he's hardly taller than my eight-year-old," I thought as I stared at the stooped, shriveled body. But the appalling thing was his face - lopsided from swelling, red and raw.
Yet his voice was pleasant as he said, "Good evening. I've come to see if you've a room for just one night. I came for a treatment this morning from the eastern shore, and there's no bus 'til morning. "He told me he'd been hunting for a room since noon but with no success, no one seemed to have a room. "I guess it's my face... I know it looks terrible, but the doctor says with a few more treatments..."
For a moment I hesitated, but his next words convinced me: "I could sleep in this rocking chair on the porch. My bus leaves early in the morning."
I told him we would find him a bed, but to rest on the porch. I went inside and finished getting supper. When we were ready, I asked the old man if he would join us. "No thank you. I have plenty." And he held up a brown paper bag. When I had finished the dishes, I went out on the porch to talk with him a few minutes. It didn't take a long time to see that this old man had an oversized heart crowded into that tiny body. He told me he fished for a living to support his daughter, her five children, and her husband, who was hopelessly crippled from a back injury. He didn't tell it by way of complaint. In fact, every other sentence was prefaced with a thanks to God for a blessing. He was grateful that no pain accompanied his disease, which was apparently a form of skin cancer. He thanked God for giving him the strength to keep going.
At bedtime, we put a camp cot in the children's room for him. When I got up in the morning, the bed linens were neatly folded and the little man was out on the porch. He refused breakfast, but just before he left for his bus, haltingly, as if asking a great favor, he said, "Could I please come back and stay the next time I have a treatment? I won't put you out a bit. I can sleep fine in a chair." He paused a moment and then added, "Your children made me feel at home. Grownups are bothered by my face, but children don't seem to mind." I told him he was welcome to come again.
And on his next trip he arrived a little after seven in the morning. As a gift, he brought a big fish and a quart of the largest oysters I had ever seen. He said he had shucked them that morning before he left so that they'd be nice and fresh. I knew his bus left at 4:00 am, and wondered what time he had to get up in order to do this for us.
In the years he came to stay overnight with us there was never a time that he did not bring us fish or oysters or vegetables from his garden. Other times we received packages in the mail, always by special delivery; fish or oysters packed in a box of fresh young spinach or kale, every leaf carefully washed. Knowing that he must walk three miles to mail these, and knowing how little money he had made the gifts doubly precious.
When I received these little remembrances, I often thought of a comment our next-door neighbor made after he left that first morning. "Did you keep that awful looking man last night? I turned him away! You can lose roomers by putting up such people!" Maybe we did lose roomers once or twice. But oh! If only they could have known him, perhaps their illness would have been easier to bear. I know our family always will be grateful to have known him; from him we learned what it was to accept the bad without complaint and the good with gratitude to God.
Recently I was visiting a friend who has a greenhouse. As she showed me her flowers, we came to the most beautiful one of all, a golden chrysanthemum, bursting with blooms. But to my great surprise, it was growing in an old dented, rusty bucket. I thought to myself, "If this were my plant, I'd put it in the loveliest container I had!" My friend changed my mind. "I ran short of pots," she explained, "and knowing how beautiful this one would be, I thought it wouldn't mind starting out in this old pail. It's just for a little while, till I can put it out in the garden." She must have wondered why I laughed so delightedly, but I was imagining just such a scene in Heaven. "Here's an especially beautiful one," God might have said when he came to the soul of the sweet old fisherman. "He won't mind starting in this small body."
All this happened long ago - and now, in God's garden, how tall this lovely soul must stand.
Explanations for “The Old Fisherman” Reading
This is one of my all time favorite stories. The old fisherman is a true hero to me. The qualities he displayed are surely the antithesis of the characteristics that make up the heroes our society seems to hold up, embrace, and emulate today. I love how the old fisherman found joy in serving others sacrificially in the midst of his own pain and suffering. Complaining, anger, bitterness, entitlement, self-absorption, etc. are far removed from this gentle, humble, selfless soul.
I appreciate how the lady in our story sizes up the old fisherman, “It didn't take a long time to see that this old man had an oversized heart crowded into that tiny body. He told me he fished for a living to support his daughter, her five children, and her husband, who was hopelessly crippled from a back injury. He didn't tell it by way of complaint. In fact, every other sentence was prefaced with a thanks to God for a blessing. He was grateful that no pain accompanied his disease, which was apparently a form of skin cancer. He thanked God for giving him the strength to keep going.”
I find great value in how the lady in our story summarizes the impact of the of the old fisherman on those around him, “Maybe we did lose roomers once or twice (because of his appearance). But oh! If only they could have known him, perhaps their illness would have been easier to bear. I know our family always will be grateful to have known him; from him we learned what it was to accept the bad without complaint and the good with gratitude to God.”
And of course the ending reflection of the lady in our story always moves me deeply, “I was imagining just such a scene in Heaven. ‘Here's an especially beautiful one,’ God might have said when he came to the soul of the sweet old fisherman. ‘He won't mind starting in this small body.’ All this happened long ago - and now, in God's garden, how tall this lovely soul must stand.” The story speaks for itself. A life oriented to God changes how life is lived and the effect it has on those around us.
Once again we see that the workings of faith in God are essential. As a hospice Chaplain I consistently talk about faith in two ways. First, faith is the assurance that God loves us and is with us in Spirit every moment of every day he gives to us and is always helping us get through life in the best way possible . In whatever we face, God majors on producing in us a great sense of well-being by providing the peace and comfort of his presence. Second, faith is the assurance that in addition to his being with us in Spirit while we are here, we will be with him forever in Heaven someday when he is ready for us and says, “come on home.”These assurances are a great source of peace and comfort for us, but all of this comes to us solely because we have first experienced peace with God through forgiveness in Christ.
The stories I share with the people I visit, allow me to share again and again this two-fold understanding of faith from different angles. Each week I will share them with you and it is my hope that the lessons of faith gained from them will bless your life in special ways.
Posted on Sun, March 10, 2019
by Ken Hart