Several years ago a friend sent me this story. I have since seen slightly different versions of it from time to time, always without attribution. Some stories stick in your mind like a cockle burr. This is one of them. It is a good example of the kind of virtue of which an old friend of ours spoke some two thousand years ago. It seems appropriate for the beginning of Lent. Read it all the way to the end.
A nurse took the tired, anxious serviceman to the bedside. "Your son is here", she to the old man. She had to repeat the words several times before the patient's eyes opened. Heavily sedated because of the pain, he dimly saw the young uniformed Marine standing outside the oxygen tent. He reached out his hand. The young man wrapped his toughened fingers around the old man's limp ones, squeezing a message of love and encouragement. The nurse brought a chair so he could sit beside the bed.
All through the night the young Marine sat there in the poorly-lighted ward, holding the old man's hand and offering him words of love and strength.
Occasionally the nurse suggested the Marine move away and rest awhile. He refused. Whenever the nurse came into the ward the young soldier was oblivious of her and the night noises of the hospital - the clanking of the oxygen tanks, the laughter of the night staff members exchanging greetings, the cries and moans of other patients. Now and then she heard him say a few gentle words. The dying man said nothing, only held tightly to his son all through the night.
Along toward the end of the night the old man died. The weary soldier released the now-lifeless hand he had been holding all night and went to tell the nurse. While she did what had to be done, he waited. Finally, she returned and began to offer words of sympathy, but he interrupted her. "Who was that man?" he asked.
Startled the nurse said, "He was your father". "No, he was not", the young Marine replied. "I have never seen him before in my life." Then why didn't you say something when I took you to him?" she asked.
"I knew right away there had been a mistake, but I also knew he needed his son, and his son wasn't here. I realized he was too sick to tell whether or not I was his son, and knowing how much he needed me, I just stayed."
The next time someone needs you, and you are there, don't leave. Exact identity does not really matter. Just stay. You don't have to be a saint, and you don't have to have the stamina or discipline of a marine? Just stay. You don't have to know what to do. You probably do not need to say anything. Just stay. Your presence will be more eloquent than anything you could say. Just stay.
You are not there just for the person who may not even know who you really are. You are also there for something you need to learn. We are not human beings going through a temporary spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings going through a temporary human experience. It is worth staying up all night with a dying stranger to learn that.