As a little tyke, I would sometimes crawl in my Dad’s lap while he would read the evening paper, or be watching television. Fascinated with the size of his hands, I would play with the fingers and thumbs, comparing them to mine. The grooves, wrinkles, and intricate detail of the rope-like bands of his fingerprints were so much more distinct than the smooth skin on my little mitts. The patches of hair on his knuckles and the back of his fists were dark compared to the peach fuzz on mine. I would press my miniature digits against his and wonder if mine would ever be as big.
I remember his paw wrapped around mine as he stood behind while teaching me how to grip a bat; his left on mine over the left handlebar and his right on my lower back as he ran alongside and steadied me while learning to balance a bicycle without training wheels; or the firm slap of his flattened right palm he gave me ten good whacks on my behind for being disobedient; or his hand patting gently on my the back of my neck as he leaned over my shoulder to help me with a tough bout of algebra homework; or his arm wrapped around my side and proudly embracing me upon my graduation from Wheaton.
The week that the final draft of this manuscript was edited and the graphic design for the cover was approved, Dad started slipping away.
A month earlier, he fell and broke his hip while walking to the dining hall at his retirement home. His vertigo had become more pronounced in the past year, and he had also fractured his forearm from a spill while taking off his shoes, and cracked his lower right arm from a tumble while taking a shower. The resultant physical therapy from these first two setbacks went well. But he was not responding at all to the special hospital care he was receiving after his hip needed rebuilding.
Dad’s appetite was receding. He was becoming borderline dehydrated. We were doing all in our power to help him, but it was becoming obvious he was winding down. The morning his kidneys started failing, I called Joyce who was on business in Washington DC, and she was able to catch a flight that would arrive by late afternoon.
He was wavering in and out of consciousness, but in the moments where Dad seemed coherent I grabbed his hand and told him Joyce was on her way. “Can you hold on long enough to see her?” I asked with a catch in my throat. “She really wants to say goodbye.” His eyes connected with mine, and he nodded slightly. Then his lids closed and never reopened as he began descending into a more comatose state.
I eased my hand into his and waited. That tactile intertwining brought back memories of my little hand in his from five decades ago. For the first time, I realized how similar they now looked. Sure, his were more weathered…a few liver spots here and there, and the hairs were now all gray…but still showing equal measures of strength, character, and gentleness that I can only hope to emulate.
In the last few years with all the time we had sharing meals and driving around, we had some conversations that I will always treasure. These talks were washing over me now. I remembered sharing with him some of my insecurities, and he confessed several episodes of his own. Like in his college days when he woke up in a hung-over haze inside of his car in front of his apartment after driving home drunk—wondering how the hell he had navigated traffic in that state, and his hands trembled on the steering wheel as dawn burned his bloodshot eyes. While he practically crawled up the stairs in nausea, he swore that he would not end up like his father. That moment helped lead him to seriously searching for better reasons to live.
He told me of flipping through scriptures searching for answers, and clasping his hands tightly together in prayer asking Christ into his life. And recalled his sweaty palms raking through his hair has he paced back and forth trying to make a decision about going into the ministry several years after that.
“I can still distinctly remember holding each one of you in my arms after you were born,” he had told me. “I was feeling so unworthy of the honor. I especially recollect with Joyce cupping the back of her tiny, perfect little head in the meat of my hand—her big blue eyes gazing up at me. ‘Lord,’ I prayed, ‘how can I possibly provide for these three beautiful children you have given to Marilyn and me?’ My salary wasn’t even $10,000 a year back then, and there were so many responsibilities leading a church.”
Still you argue for an option
Still you angle for your case
Like you wouldn’t know a burning bush
If it blew up in your face
Yeah, we scheme about the future
And we dream about the past
When just a simple reaching out
Might build a bridge that lasts
Mulling these images over for several hours, I was simultaneously praying that God would allow my sister to travel without delay. My friend Katy volunteered to pick Joyce up at the airport and they raced through early evening rush hour traffic. Dad’s breathing had become very erratic, and he was wincing in agitation from the turmoil that was wreaking mayhem intestinally.
When she arrived, Sis swept into the room and spoke in her upbeat manner, “I’m here now, Dad. So very happy to be with you.” As she slipped her hand into his, he squeezed hard and would not let go for the next ninety minutes.
The doctor on duty, Heather, felt that Dad was very near the end. We wanted to make him as comfortable as possible and asked if they could administer morphine to help with the pain that was burning his stomach. They started doses every few hours.
My home is just a few miles away, so I dashed over to get a CD player and some music I knew Dad enjoyed. I also brought a Presbyterian hymnal, some clothes and toiletries so we could make ourselves comfortable for however long we would need to be by his side. I also grabbed two lamps to give us respite from the stark glare of fluorescent lighting.
The gentleman who had been Dad’s roommate for the previous week was discharged earlier that day, and the staff told us we could use the extra bed. We pulled it over next to my father’s and took turns lying next to him, holding his hand, patting his arm, and gently reassuring him that it was going to be OK. “We’re here to help you step over to the other side, Dad.”
One album we played was a collection of hymns sung by Lynda Poston-Smith entitled Steal Away Home: Songs of Hope and Comfort. This had been a favorite of my Mother’s, not only for the eclectic selections, but also because their voices were nearly identical. Mom had operatic skill in her beautiful soprano, and the blend of her singing along while she did housework would’ve caused anyone to think she was Lynda’s sister.
“This sounds just like Mom, doesn’t it Dad?” I asked. His eyebrows raised up and down as his lips moved silently, trying to sing along. “She’s waiting for you, Dad. Mom is calling you home.” His grip grew strong around my hand.
You were dreaming on a park bench
‘Bout a broad highway somewhere
When the music from the carillon
Seemed to hurl your heart out there
Past the scientific darkness
Past the fireflies that float
To an angel bending down
To wrap you in her warmest coat
That night, the staff welcomed Joyce to sleep in the empty room next door. I cozied-beside Dad, our shoulders touching, caressing his arm, putting my hand on his chest when his breathing became agitated. “You’re doing fine, Dad. You can make this trip at your own pace,” I whispered.
I had gotten him some of his beloved A&W Root Beer, and would dip swabs of the sweet brew to wet his lips every half hour or so. Sometimes he would even swallow. “Nothing like a cold root beer, huh, Dad?” I would ask, and sometimes his eyebrows would rise in response.
As the hours melted one into another, a certain cadence took over his air intake: a large inhale, a slight moan, and then a sustained exhale. I began to wonder which one might be his last. I didn’t want to let him go, but he had been longing to for months. At least a dozen times in that stretch he admitted that he wanted to go to heaven. “I’ve had enough, Mark, and I don’t think I’ve got anything left to give anyway,” he lamented.
Why is it that so often as life winds down there is such a grayness to it?
When half-light started seeping through the window at sunup, the morphine must’ve been pretty well integrated into his system, and his breathing had become even-paced with no external signs of pain. Vital signs were fairly stable. So, once Joyce was alert and in the room, I drove home to eat and shower.
While I was gone, she pulled out the hymnal and began singing to Dad while sitting with him hand-in-hand. On certain numbers he would twitch in recognition. She went cover to cover, singing every one that she remembered, like “Children of the Heavenly Father,” “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” “Be Thou My Vision ,” “Like A River Glorious,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” “To God Be The Glory,” “Breathe On Me, Oh Breath of God,” “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” “Fairest Lord Jesus,” “For the Beauty of the Earth,” “Great Is They Faithfulness,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “How Great Thou Art,” “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” “Open My Eyes That I May See,” “What a Friend We Have In Jesus,” “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross,” “Praise Ye The Lord,” and “Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Jehovah” were the ones she noted he acknowledged the most. On some, tears even trickled down his cheeks.
Knowing my Sister’s ambivalence about much of evangelicalism over the past several decades, this was stirring a reconnection of memories growing up in a pastor’s home. The ridiculous pressures, expectations of the fundamental lifestyle, and disappointments over decisions made (or not made) seemed to be of no consequence during this final bond between a daughter and father. These time-tested melodies and hope-filled psalms swept over the both of them. “Blessed Assurance,” indeed.
Angels, descending, bring from above
Echoes of mercy, whispers of love
Watching and waiting, looking above
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love
(“Blessed Assurance,” Fanny Crosby, 1873)
Upon my return, Joyce took a break to have breakfast and shop for some clothes (she had only packed for a two day business trip). In my next few hours with Dad, I read him some of the newspaper, prayed with him, and recited some portions of scripture.
When Dad seemed to be in a rapt sleep, I pulled out Kathleen Norris’ Acedia and Me, which I had been working through for the past month. This book is a telling of her discovery and contemplation of acedia, one of the original “Seven Deadly Sins” that over the past five hundred years has been referred to more as “sloth.” Even in the past century it has more often been looked at as “depression.” Norris ties this in with the long struggle of her husband’s declining health over several decades. The chapter I opened that afternoon was entitled “And to the End Arriving.” I knew that she was going to eventually talk of his passing, but had no idea it would be nearly a hundred pages before the close of the dissertation. As I read of her tending to him on his deathbed, barely holding on to life, I found myself eminently encouraged. I sensed the Spirit once again interlacing threads of circumstance to show me tender concern.
Kathleen recounted her husband David’s favorite prayer, which was the final utterance of the compline (from the Latin “complete,” the service used to bring each day to a close): “May the Lord grant us a peaceful night, and a perfect end.” I nodded in affirmation that, in God’s mercy, the same would be true for Dad in His timing.
Throughout that afternoon, we pondered moving him to my house for final hospice. His breathing seemed measured and steady—as if he had found a comfortable pace that might sustain him for a while. In and out went the rhythm of life. The expansion of his chest welling with hope, to be followed—as is the nature of all things—with the subsequent sigh of resignation. To be repeated over, and over, and over.
My sister and I took turns sitting with Dad, while the other would make calls to loved ones. We imparted courage to him and each other as he made each symbolic step. His vital signs were beginning to fluctuate. His lungs started to gather fluid, and we heard some occasional deep gurgling sounds in his throat.
In some ways it was eerily similar to six years before when Mom had a massive stroke during her recovery from stout stomach cancer treatments. They were returning to Pittsburgh from a family reunion in Kentucky when she collapsed at a freeway exit convenience store in southeast Ohio. As soon as Dad called us, Joyce and I raced to the hospital she had been taken to in Dayton; each of us covering the 300 miles from Indiana and Tennessee, respectively, in blazing times.
We had friends from Pennsylvania overnight Mom’s favorite CD’s, and bought a unit to play them for her while we took turns holding her hand and speaking with her. After several tests, the doctors concluded that if she were ever to regain awareness that she would most likely have very limited quality of life. Both Mom and Dad had drawn up extremely clear living wills that left no doubt regarding their choice in a situation like this: do not attempt to maintain. We read it and re-read it carefully, met with the physicians, pondered with the hospital chaplain, prayed separately and communally. After two days, we unanimously decided, with the staff’s blessing and cooperation, that we would take Mom off life support. She had been sending us cues, too: her blood pressure was wildly erratic, her body temperature was soaring to 104 degrees, her heart rate was all over the chart.
She was telling us to let her go.
Even though it was a non-religious hospital, nearly every nurse and doctor who had been helping in those three days came into her room when the time arrived. We all held hands and prayed around Mom. Earlier that day, the resident chaplain, Rev. Robinson, had heard us playing Lynda Poston-Smith’s version of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” After he and Dad prayed for God’s presence and blessing as all life-sustaining machinery and fluids were shut down, the clergyman asked that we play it again and sing in unison.
Our voices were quivering, but determined, as we sang…
Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin' for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Comin' for to carry me home
I think the three of us had the same image of Mom singing this in front of thousands at numerous church services where she would give her passionate rendition of her favorite spiritual.
I looked over Jordan
And what did I see?
Comin' for to carry me home
A band of angels comin' after me
Comin' for to carry me home
Dad, who we did not often see cry, was sobbing pretty hard, and I put my arm around him…
Sometimes I'm up, and sometimes I'm down
Coming for to carry me home
But still my soul feels heavenly bound
Coming for to carry me home
We had all figured with Dad’s prostate cancer surgery thirteen years before, and triple by-pass just six years later, that he would be the first to go. Now it was beginning to sink in that Mom was crossing over first…
If you get to heaven before I do
Comin' for to carry me home
Tell all my friends I'm a-comin' too
Comin' for to carry me home
We watched the life signs slowly ebb, the color draining from her face. Joyce, Dad, and I all got on our knees next to Mom as the heartbeat grew fainter and fainter.
And she was gone…in just four minutes.
Everyone quietly left us by her body. It was so somber, but about as holy as you could want. We were humbled to be there.
So, here were the three of us again, but now Dad was in the reclining and declining position. Joyce and I on either side of him late on a sun-drenched spring afternoon in Nashville. Dad’s breathing was the only sound in the room…unless Joyce and I were quietly chatting as we pondered his life
I contemplated what he had imparted to me—imprinted into my life with his guiding hand of love, discipline, and direction. Each sustained breath seemed to bring another lesson to mind, whether it was how to laugh, accepting those in need, striving for relevance to people’s lives, loyalty, standing up for what was right, and care for others above yourself. One bit of wisdom that grew more precious with age was admitting we would never really know all the answers in this life.
As a minister, Dad allowed people to ask hard questions about faith, or a lack thereof. His permitting people to be open with their doubts made them more comfortable in hearing possible solutions through scripture and his personal experiences. And he knew that these answers often did not come quickly, but needed patience for all involved.
I remember him saying sometimes “there are lots of good preachers out there…but there never seem to be enough pastors.” Now Joyce and I were in that place where Dad had consoled so many with his amazing bedside manner for those in the hospital. He was a great listener to those who were grieving, knowing when to pray and when to be silent. We were doing our best to reflect that back to him as he lay there. Things had grown peaceful in the midst of the sadness and reflection as the afternoon progressed. The intake and outflow had now become pretty unencumbered and even.
In…out…pause. In…out…pause. And then, without any warning whatsoever, he stopped. No trauma, no struggle, no difficulty. He breathed his last and slipped away.
Joyce and I looked at each other, tears welling. “Good for you, Dad. You did good,” she whispered.
There’s a healing touch to find you
On that broad highway somewhere
To lift you high
As music flying
Through the angel’s hair
It dawned on me that we had been given a very rare gift in this modern age: to be by the side of each of our parents when they passed, and to see them move so gently from one realm to the next.
My brother Jim was yanked away from us without warning. I could never say goodbyes to Ernie, or John, or Mike back in my college days, nor many others who have departed subsequently. But for the two people who gave me life in the first place--the two who loved me most—I was allowed the honor of seeing them through.
As I held his hand that final time, still warm but beginning to cool as his spirit left him—I remember doing the same with him five years after Mom had died when he was recovering from his broken arm. He was feeling quite low.
“Sometimes I wonder what all of my life meant,” he confessed. “The toil of my hands…will there be any lasting impact?” staring out at a powdered dusk, he paused for a while. “It used to sadden Marilyn and me that none of you brought grandchildren into our lives. But last night the Lord reminded me of what you and Joyce had done—a lot which wouldn’t have happened if you had families. Look at the university Joyce is helping start in Africa. That source of higher education is going to change Angola for generations to come. And then there are those 150,000 sponsors you have found for needy kids through radio and concert events with Compassion in these decades you’ve worked with them.”
“You taught and modeled so well, Dad.” I reminded him. “In so many ways you showed us how to serve—not just in words, but also actions.”
“Yeah,” he replied, brightening up. “When you put your hand to the plow, you don’t always realize what the harvest will look like until you go through too much rain, too much heat, locusts, beetles, fire ants, and long stretches of wondering if it will amount to much.”
We’ve been flooded with hundreds of testimonies of the impact of Mom and Dad since his passing. At his memorial service in Pittsburgh as well as via cards, e-mails, and phone calls we have heard from some of the thousands that were touched over those sixty-plus years of service at eight congregations they served.
Don’t ask what you are not doing
Because your voice cannot command
In time we will move mountains
And it will come through your hands
(“Through Your Hands” by John Hiatt from Stolen Moments, 1990)