Sharon and John Pittman made it their life’s work to serve God and His church. Both have been dedicated to serving the underprivileged. Their most recent mission location is in Malawi at the Malawi Adventist University. While John served as a Bible worker and mentor, Sharon served (and still serves) as the vice chancellor of the university.
“To go or not to go?” That was the question! We had just been informed that John, my husband, had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a terminal disease, and he had anywhere from six months to two years to live. After collecting our breath (literally), and crying together, we refocused our future on the eternal.
Thirty-eight years ago we pledged at our wedding service, “To become one to better serve the Lord!” That motto has guided each of our decisions throughout our many years of marriage. After we fasted and prayed about John’s illness and our lifelong commitment to mission work, it seemed clear that the Lord was leading us to serve as AVS volunteers in Malawi, where I was to serve as the university vice chancellor despite John’s physical challenges. Lugging oxygen concentrators, transformers, nasal cannulas, and, of course, the dog, we arrived in beautiful Malawi as a team not knowing how long John would be blessed with another day of breath.
Six months turned into two years and, with all the fresh cool air at our rural home, two years turned into four. We began our fifth year—so much for the doctors’ predictions! Each day we lived the miracles, and each week John continued to offer Bible studies, distribute The Great Controversy, and prepare students for baptisms while being linked to the oxygen concentrators that the Lord kept miraculously working without any service or routine maintenance that would have been provided in the U.S.
Saying a long goodbye to someone I loved allowed us to live with more love and more vibrancy! Our commitment to service was shaded with the urgent reality that each day might be our last to maximize our shared impact for Jesus. I think we often shocked our Malawi family with open discussions about what should happen and what John would like to see happen when that day arrived. With John’s Southern drawl he would declare without pause, “I am ready for my dirt nap whenever Jesus is ready for me to sleep!” Or “I will wait for Jesus while pushing up lilies!” His humor brought him through the days he was gasping for air, feeling nauseated, or enduring other such challenges brought on by his disease. He told the many friends who visited with him frequently, “Don’t spend money on my funeral! Just make a box and put me in the ground and let me sleep!” He made it clear that all memorial moneys should be dedicated to the scholarship fund for our many needy college students.
Then came COVID-19. It began with a cough, nasal congestion, and other Omicron COVID symptoms. We had great cough syrup from the U.S.; I was sure that would help, but nothing we tried relieved his incessant coughing. Three days later he looked at me with one big tear streaming down his face and said, “Momma, let me go to sleep! This is my time . . . I have fought a good fight, and I have finished my course.”
I panicked, called my leadership team, and said, “He has made his decision, and I need to let him go!” They insisted that I take him to the hospital, but I told them that he preferred to be home during these final hours. Since he was on hospice before we left the U.S., I had been able to bring palliative-care medications, and he decided, with sheer exhaustion, that we needed to make that final choice that would end the suffering.
John breathed his last on Sunday afternoon, Feb. 20, 2022, about 2 p.m., surrounded by the local kids that blessed our home, his many friends who wanted to say goodbye, his brother who happened to be visiting from the U.S., and a dear family friend who was with us in Malawi as a volunteer. We sang, we cried, and we prayed as he took one last gasp of air. Then the machine that kept him breathing was shut off, and all was quiet.
We purchased a village-made coffin and the next day hosted a small graveside service. We had the best of African music, numerous African funeral traditions that added a great cultural touch to John’s “going-away party,” as he had said he always wanted.
Today he sleeps on the Lakeview campus of Malawi Adventist University in our small cemetery. I walk the dogs by there each morning as the Lord and I talk while exercising. I am at peace. John is napping nearby, and our shared commitment to a life of service goes on even after death did us part! “See you in the morning, babes! Sleep tight!”