I hesitate to write this story because I know that for many the death of a loved one was not a good experience. Perhaps most of the time this is the case. Death can be sudden and premature; it can be ugly, even horrific; it can occur far away making it impossible for us to be present; and it can often leave behind a host of unresolved feelings. I’m not suggesting that my father’s death has none of these characteristics, but all-in-all, under the circumstances, it was about as good a death as one could ask for. And for that I am so so grateful. Much of what follows comes from my journal entries during that time….
From Sunday night, October 20 until Wednesday afternoon (October 23) when he graduated, our family and the nursing staff kept vigil. Three days of watching and waiting for the resurrection we knew was at hand.
From first to last, the vigil was a God-crafted, God-enabled gift of amazing grace. From all of us being able to gather Sunday night in less than 3 hours, to my dad being slightly responsive that first day, and then as he descended further and further into his own quiet world, still hearing us, but in a place of stillness where he could possibly hear and feel and see God himself.
Once dad descended into that thin space somewhere in between, we gave him permission in as many ways as we could think of that it was ok for him to let go. There was nothing more he needed to do. We love him and we will take good care of one another.
Each day we did a little “exercise” with him called “practicing heaven.” I asked dad to pretend that he had the power, like Jesus, to take one final breath and then willingly give up his spirit to the Father. Together we imagined what his first breaths on other side might be like, and assured him of the goodness and glory of life with God face to face.
On his last night (Tuesday) we shared communion as a family with Old Soul pure red California wine and San Francisco sourdough bread. Symbols of the life of Jesus given and shared with us, and of the communion and union with God into which we are invited now and eternally. A symbol of the reckless hospitality of God for we who are not worthy. A pilgrim’s meal as we journey toward the great banquet table that is to come. My dad at this point was unresponsive, so my mom touched the wine and bread to his lips. He’s been on a feeding tube for the last two years, so I can only imagine what it will be like when he does take his place at the banquet table of God.
Oct 23 2:00am
I’m alone with my dad, listening to his labored breathing and apnea pauses and the horrible ugliness of it is beautiful to me, for every forced breath he takes means he is still alive. Soon – in just a few hours – one of these breaths will be his last and he will be gone for good.
Every once in a while the pause is so great I think he is gone, but then he reaches deep again and soldiers on – pressing through the difficult and keeping going. That’s the way he was in life too – a fighter, a worker, persevering, enduring, making the struggle a game that he would eventually master.
Oct 23 1:00pm
The song “It is well” (by Bethel) is playing and for a little while all of us get very quiet. I slip from my chair beside the bed to my knees and close my eyes letting the words wash over me. As I do I get an image of my dad leaning backward into Jesus’ chest. They are in water and Jesus has one strong arm across dad’s chest while he paddles backwards slowing carrying him to the shore on the other side. There is nothing my dad still needs to do. He does not need to say any special words. He does not need to trek his way through stormy clouds to the pearly gates. All that remains is for him to lean back and entrust himself into the faithful arms of his Savior Jesus Christ. It is the ultimate trust fall.
Oct 23 2:25pm
The transition happened. Dad graduated from this veiled existence where vision is cloudy and hearing poor, finally resting back into the strong embrace of Jesus as he swam him across to the opposite shore.
His final breaths were to the music and words of Amazing Grace as I read them aloud…
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.
Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.
The Lord has promised good to me,
His Word my hope secures;
He will my Shield and Portion be,
As long as life endures.
Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess, within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.
All became quiet as he held his breath one last time and on this one finally let go: “Into your hands Father I commit my spirit.”
When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.
To entrust oneself in this way requires an ok-ness with not knowing all the answers, but trusting the Father anyway for he is good. This entrustment is required at death, and as C.S. Lewis has written, we best die before we die. That is, entrusting our selves into the hands of God in faith, hope, and love is what we are invited (created) to do each and every day. It is no less than a form of death. And yet, it is paradoxically also the path of life, eternal life.
I fully believe he is there now, by Jesus’ side, eyes wide-opened, mouth grinning again, face shining like never before, more alive than we who remain, now cheering for us to entrust our selves more and more fully (i.e. die) before we one day join him (i.e. die).