My father died with more dignity and grace than anyone I have ever seen. Having worked in the medical field, I’ve witnessed every imaginable response to that final call; that bell-tolling moment we each must face.
His demeanor and last days were a real surprise to me. Not that I expected dramatic wailing and gnashing of teeth, but because his personality leant itself more to being the eternal class clown. At 6’4” tall and wearing a handsome cowboy hat, he was often called Big Daddy.
Diabetes and arthritis teamed up to bring down the gentle giant too soon. He suffered excruciating, debilitating joint pain all over. His doctor offered him a choice. “Do you want quality of life, or quantity?”
Dad chose the first option. Thus began the steroids that put him back on his feet and sent him on at least one more trip out west.
Every couple of years he and his wife would load up a large van of best pals and head for all points to the left of his home in the south. He loved the delightful excursions--from National Parks to California’s coastline to the Rocky Mountains. He named these vacation extravaganzas, “Westward Ho.”
The steroids kept the inevitable at bay long enough for one more expedition before the side effects took their nasty toll. With kidneys failing, he was admitted to the hospital to begin the ultimate journey…the big one.
He knew that life on earth was drawing to a close and decided to tell as many people goodbye as he could. Amazingly, many of these phone conversations ended in shared laughter.
His loving wife stayed by his side day and night. He assured her there was no place he hadn’t been that he wanted to go, nor anything he had missed doing.
Blood thinners caused bleeding under his skin which gave his arms a dark purplish color and made sticking a needle in a vein painful and nearly impossible, but when asked how he felt, he would always respond in a positive way, “Well…not too bad today.”
Doctors told the family he could not last long, maybe just a few days. My 11-year old son and I flew from our home 300 miles away. He and two cousins accompanied his uncle and aunt and me to the hospital in the evenings. The kids would speak to their grandpa, very quietly, and then return to the waiting room to watch the summer Olympics.
Dad’s loyal spouse, also a nurse for many years, kept me apprised of the daily lab work. The numbers were out of sight and certainly not compatible with life. We were shocked that he was able to hang on for a month.
Nearly every morning she would call me and say, “Dad wanted you to know he thinks today is the day he will die.”
I knew it was not a morbid thing, just a reality. He was enduring incredible suffering and he was ready to go…he just wasn’t going.
At night he would tell her, “Maybe the Lord will take me while I sleep.” In the morning, when he opened his eyes, he would lament, “WHY am I still here?”
She did not play any shallow games with him, only squeezed his hand and told him it was in God’s hands and in His timing.
On August 4, as my little group was getting ready for the daily sojourn to the hospital, she called to say we’d better hurry. As we sped along the road I looked up and noticed the most stunning configuration. A cloud in front of the sun made the rays seem to beam down in all directions, as if Jesus Himself were arriving. I like to think there was a subtle message in that perfect picture in the sky.
When we rushed into his room he was fully conscious. In a few minutes he became unusually agitated and told us, as forcibly as he could, we had to leave.
“Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye,” he insisted, “I’ll see you later!”
Almost as soon as we got into the hall she called us back. He was breathing his last. We stood around his bed and watched as God answered the constant question Dad had asked for the last month: When?
There was no sobbing and carrying on as if this was an unexpected bereavement for my father’s family. Even though bittersweet, we knew he was finally, and happily, on the very best trip of his life.
2 Corinthians 5:4 [NLT]
While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life.
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