Bruce May died this morning. He had been under heavy sedation for several days as the cancer in his lungs made its final advance, and the family knew death was imminent. Everyone had given him permission to let go, and he finally slipped away around 7:00 am. He was 93 years old.
I didn’t know Bruce as well as most of you, but I did become acquainted with him in the six months since my arrival in Reading in November. I first met Bruce and Kathy before my first official day as your pastor; he had just received his diagnosis and was still in the hospital, and he requested that I come see him. As time went on I would learn that Bruce sometimes had a brusque and imperious manner, so it was fortunate, I suppose, that I got off on the right foot by complying with his request.
From that first day in the hospital to my final visit with Bruce last week, while he was still lucid and able to talk, I had never met anyone so comfortable (if that’s the right word) with the thought of his own impending demise. He made no equivocations, he never danced around the subject or employed euphemisms; he looked death straight in the face as he would any other challenge from which he thought he might learn something.
To the very end Bruce declared that he had no fear of dying, and I believed him. He approached his illness with a scientific rigor, drawing up a list of experiences, symptoms, and responses with a one-to-ten scale to help him keep track of his “progress.” He also maintained his sense of humor, as evidenced by his self-initiated and self-planned “funneral” back in January. Bruce was one of a kind.
I was describing him to someone a week or two ago, and I stumbled across a turn of phrase that I would be proud to have somebody apply to me when I die: Bruce was voraciously curious. That is the main memory I will carry with me from my short but rich acquaintance with Bruce. He was always reading, always thinking, always ready to engage in conversation or debate about philosophy, theology, and other lofty subjects. From our earliest visits together we talked about big ideas and great books and, like me, Bruce had opinions about everything. We had some lively interactions, and I usually walked away feeling that I had learned something new.
Bruce’s ideas about religion and spirituality were somewhat unorthodox, and I think he liked it that I wasn’t scared away or offended by them. We would speculate together about what was ahead for him (and for all of us) once he arrived in the “undiscovered country,” as Hamlet puts it. In the last prayer I shared with Bruce I asked God, the Holy Mystery, to welcome Bruce on his arrival and to show him what was past the bend of the river around which the living cannot see.
My wife Sarah, who spent a considerable amount of time in China and speaks excellent Mandarin, tells me the Chinese word for cicada (or a cicada-like insect, anyway) is zhiliao (roughly ju-lee-OW). It means basically, “know now,” and Sarah has adopted it as a saying for when somebody dies: now they know. (Mind you, this is Sarah’s usage; it’s not a common Chinese idiom.) I like that. It’s a comforting thought, especially when we think of the river bend of my prayer—the one we can’t see around. And so let us commend Bruce May to the loving embrace of God, trusting that—zhiliao—now he knows.
Grace and peace,