Note from the Author: I’ve received permission from my family to share the story of my father’s passing. Some of you may have read parts of this on Facebook. I believe it’s so important that we share our stories with each other to draw comfort, inspiration, and wisdom from them and to help us better navigate life.
I always knew it was coming, I just didn’t know when. Death, that is. It’s rudely brushed past me before, but it’s easy to distance yourself when it’s someone else’s loved one. When it’s your loved one, when someone from your inner circle exits, death is no longer a curiosity and an occasion to show empathy, but a piercing of the heart. I had no idea that I would be consumed by it, that my dad’s face would take up residence in my mind, and that his departure would so ravage my thinking that keeping track of anything would become a considerable challenge.
As a health care aide working with the elderly in a hospital setting, I’ve seen my share of death. I did my practicum in a hospice in Calgary. I gently washed the wasting away, commiserated with the exhausted families, their faces long and flattened by too much care, helped prepare the bodies, zipping them into big bags like one would a suit or dress to keep it from getting rumpled. Death isn’t pretty. I remember one lanky gentleman I can only describe as a human tinker toy. It was a marvel that he could still stand and walk. His skin was stretched on the bone like nylon stretched taut on the spine and crosspiece of a kite. If they took him outside on a windy day, I’m sure he would’ve blown away. With his sunken eyes, greyish pall, and gaunt face, he already resembled a corpse. When the life went out of him, he became the most gruesome thing I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean to be disrespectful. I’m being honest. It’s an image that haunts me.
My most striking encounter with death took place when I was working at an assisted living facility. I came on shift to find a woman dying, emaciated and rattling, the boom box on her bedside table tuned to the local Christian radio station. Not one person came to see this woman off, so it was a co-worker and I, the paid help, who would hold her hand and try to comfort her. We found out after she passed that when her family was informed of her death and asked to pick up her things, their response was, “Good riddance!” They said she was a mean, miserable person and we could huck her belongings in the trash for all they cared. They wanted nothing to do with her. A sad ending to what sounds like an equally sad life.
My dad’s death wasn’t wholly unexpected. He’d been quietly suffering in Penticton, a resort town in BC that he and my mother had moved to six years ago to be near my sister. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He had no visible tremors, but we understand, and only just recently, that one can vibrate on the inside, as well. His body withered, robbed of its strength. He began falling frequently and his heart raced so much that a pacemaker was put in. After some time, the pacemaker report revealed that he’d been having mini strokes, which would explain his erratic, bizarre, and even, aggressive behavior.
He, the person we knew him to be, was in and out, unpredictable, which made it very hard on my mother. He’d do something like pray a moving, pastoral prayer and we’d say, “there he is” and then he’d morph into a man who puzzled, exasperated, and, sometimes, frightened us. The disease, the side effects of the medications, and the resulting depression not only took the use of his mind and body, his independence and the ability to drive, but it exacted his joy. The man who was known for making people laugh could barely manage a smile. He put on a brave face when around people, but often he retreated to the darkness of his room to sit with his eyes closed. He’d become so sensitive to any sort of stimulation; too many people, too much brightness, loud noises of any kind, or extremes of temperature seemed unbearable for him. The spotlight of his life was narrowing to a pinhole. He became a reluctant, weary prisoner locked up in his suffering and there appeared to be no escape, no prayer or positive thinking that could free him. There’s some small mercy in memory loss, but such wasn’t to be his fate. It was hard enough for us to watch, but he was aware it was happening. He knew he was dying incrementally and it was torturous.
So, this Christmas was a Christmas like no other. All cheery thoughts of presents and parties, all relaxed moments of reflection on Christ’s birth, were obliterated on December 17th, when my dad had a stroke that paralyzed his entire left side. His mind was still there and he could speak, but his speech was slurred and his swallowing was impaired. My daughter and I were tied in to a Christmas production at our church and there were no understudies. We were committed for six performances. My parents, a pastor and his wife in ministry for over 50 years, told us to honor our commitment. My sister’s family gathered around them in the hospital. My brother and his wife flew in from the United States.
I felt excluded and anxious. When I wasn’t giving a performance at the church, I wandered around my house, crying on and off and staring. The daily to-do list no longer mattered. I wrote something for my dad and read it to him over the phone and was assured by my family that he understood every word. The idea that I wouldn’t see him before he died was unthinkable, but how many people get to say goodbye? Yes, he was dying. It was a decision on his part. He was told he’d never walk again and might require a feeding tube. He could hardly swallow and food had become unpalatable anyway. If he chose to keep fighting, he’d be shuttled off to a long-term care facility where they’d prop him up, drooling, in a wheelchair to wait for the stroke that would finish him off. Who wants to live like that? Well, there are some people, because I’ve taken care of them, but I wouldn’t want to live like that. He did the courageous thing and refused anymore treatment and went off his medications. He let go of the need to eat and drink. He decided not to suffer anymore and to allow his body to rest from its striving. Of course, the hospital staff would provide good pain management. Miraculously, the stroke wiped out his sick alter ego and dad was restored to us in the last 10 days of his life. He was present, full of faith and hopeful, even making jokes with the doctors. It was a gift from God.
My daughter and I gave our last performance on Christmas Eve and my family spent Christmas day in the car for a semi-treacherous 10 hour drive through the mountains. We arrived at the hospital and dad was still cognitively there. We sang Christmas Carols at his bedside and he mouthed the words. We told him we loved him and he groaned and squeezed our hands.
In the next three days, I busied myself at his bedside caring for him. I combed his hair, washed his face, cleared the goop from his eyes, brushed his teeth, moistened his mouth, and applied lip balm. We lovingly spoke to him and touched him, sang hymn after hymn, read scripture, prayed, did positive meditations, and played soothing classical music my son had on his iPod.
As I watched him there, all ribs and bones, lying still, using every ounce of energy he had to breathe, something we take so for granted, the thought came to me that one’s deathbed has to be the loneliest place on earth. He’d become so small and fragile. I figured if I was dying, I would want to be held, so I climbed into bed with him and embraced what was left of him. We told him we’d walk him as far as we could, but that we couldn’t take him all the way. I was praying I’d be able to keep that promise. Our family was scheduled to leave on the 29th due to work/school commitments. If he didn’t die while I was there, I would have to say goodbye knowing I would never see him alive again, as my brother had to do.
On December 28, my sister left the hospital to pick up my mother. My son and I remained. My dad’s ear was turning red, so I enlisted my son to help me reposition him. After we turned him, I took his head in my hands to give him some mouth moistener. I kissed his cheek and told him to go on home. Then, he delivered his final word, a melodic “Oooohhhh” and he was gone. The abruptness of it was shocking. We’ve all had people disappear from our lives through broken relationships and distance, but death is such a sudden break, a swiftly severed tie. How can someone be there one second and not be there the next? A second. That’s how quickly it happened. I suppose birth is the same, but the excitement we feel when welcoming a little one is much more agreeable than the grief we feel when saying goodbye. Still, I like to think his last exclamation was his first glimpse of glory, his first face to face with Jesus. After the nurse confirmed his passing, we called the rest of the family to join us. When they arrived, we prayed together and left the hospital.
God says our days on this earth are numbered. There’s not an infinite supply, there’s a limited figure. There’s an expiration date and, from what I’ve witnessed, a best before date. We can eat healthy, stay fit, and get the rest we need, make all the right choices, but we’ll still end up in the same line. We’re all on a death march. The body, like anything mechanical, breaks down with wear over time. When disease sets in, we can manage pain and symptoms and prolong life with drugs and repair and even replace parts with surgery, but our bodies aren’t meant to go on as is. They are perishable, in need of the resurrection power of God. The nurses told us to take as much time as we needed with “the body”, but with what we believe, clinging to that body would be madness. Never before have I felt so close to eternity and so encouraged by the promise of the resurrection. We were able to walk away in peace knowing that God still has plans for dad’s body. We’d done what we came there to do. We’d delivered our dad to the doorway and he’d stepped through it. He wasn’t there anymore. He’d been discharged to a far better place.
There are a couple of things I took from this experience and I know there are lessons still to come. Firstly, that good days on earth are preferable to more days. Why are we trying to keep people alive when they’re clearly dying? I’m speaking primarily of the elderly who are seriously ill. Is life the goal no matter what kind of life it is? We like to pat ourselves on the back for saving lives and normally, when we save something, it’s viewed as a positive and even heroic thing. In my estimation, there is nothing heroic, nay even charitable, in buying people time filled with suffering. My dad’s death wasn’t a tragedy. He was 81. He lived a long, wonderful life. He was released from years of loss, discomfort, and sorrow, because he wouldn’t accept anymore life-saving efforts. Do we really want to spend our last moments railing at death? Is this even appropriate when we as Christians profess to having hope beyond the grave? If we believe in an eternity where tears, pain, and suffering are no more why are we all trying so hard to stay here? Shouldn’t death be welcomed and the body be allowed, finally, to do what it wants to do, what it needs to do, which is to stop doing and stop hurting? When my time comes and my body is crying out for relief, I hope I’ll listen and think carefully and prayerfully about what treatment I’ll accept. Of course, this is a decision we all must make for ourselves, a decision best made before we’re unable and the decision defaults to our loved ones.
Secondly, don’t wait to tell people what they mean to you. Tell them every day. Tell them in detail. Show them you love them in tangible ways and you’ll have few regrets. God was gracious to me. I was able to say goodbye, to say what I needed to say to my dad, but for many people, the death of a loved one is a surprise. Don’t let your important words fall on dead ears. Speak now.
I know I’ve painted a bleak picture. Was it all bad? No. There were moments, glimmers of lightheartedness. A year ago, my sister and I had a special time with my parents. We had the privilege of spending a night together at a Health and Wellness Retreat called the Sparkling Hill Resort just outside of Vernon, BC. After lounging in the many and varied steam rooms and saunas complete with aromatherapy showers, we dissolved into the hot tub, and then swam in the big outdoor bathtub with the snow softly kissing our upturned faces. We ended off the night with a delicious, four-course, candlelight dinner. My dad was relaxed and with us and we enjoyed reminiscing with him and my mother about their life and ministry. The stranger formerly known as my dad was back the next morning, but my mother, sister, and I are so grateful for that one magical day.
They say your life flashes before your eyes when you have a near-death experience. I would say this happens at the death of a loved one, too. Putting a memorial service together was a necessary and much needed stroll down memory lane. Combing through family pictures to prepare a slideshow reminded me that my dad was once a child full of shenanigans, a school boy full of new found faith, a young man full of dreams, a graduate full of hope for the future, a husband and father full of love for his family, and a leader, pastor, and professor, vibrant and fully engaged in doing God’s will. On a wintery Saturday in January, we commemorated his life by bringing out our precious, most personal memories of him and stringing them together to tell his story in the light of God’s grander tale. It was a joyous celebration by God’s grace and for his glory. If you were able to attend or watch it online, we thank you for joining us. If you prayed or called or sent cards, we’re forever grateful. We’ve known God’s comfort and strength before and since. The family of God is a beautiful thing.
I don’t think I’ll ever be done grieving the loss of my dad. I share his DNA and we did life together. He shaped who I am like few others. His absence is incomprehensible, because we belong to each other. He’s part of me and not even death can diminish this. I’ll long to see him again for as long as I live. It’s a good thing God has a reunion planned. I hear it’s gonna be out of this world!
If you haven’t seen the memorial service and would like to, you can find it here by scrolling down past the obituary. It will be up for a year. https://www.springfieldfuneralhome.com/obituaries/mayforth-ronald/
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