Today marks 10 years since my father passed.
That's a long time to be without a father.
And an even longer time to miss someone like crazy.
This is an article I wrote about his death that was published in the United Methodist Reporter a few years back. I don't really have any words to describe how I feel about the significance of this day, so I thought I'd use this once again.
"A Holy Death"
It had been just a few months since my father’s death when I sat in a pew listening to my sister, Valarie, who was at the time the Associate Pastor of my church. The title of her sermon was, “The Divine Argument.” I could feel my husband’s hand squeezing mine as she described the pain and frustration my father and the entire family went through as he neared the end of his days. I’ll never forget her words: “This was a holy death.” I sat confused. I was still grieving. I still felt an ache in my chest every time I thought of him. I was still unable to eat a full meal knowing I would never sit at the table with him again. I could remember his anger as he lay dying. The pain from the loss of my father was palpable, and now my sister called it a holy death?
Our father had fought cancer for several years, always winning the battle, at least for a while. But in February of 2000 it was announced that the cancer had found its way into his bones. When they tested his bone marrow for a possible transplant, they were unable to remove a drop of liquid. The cancer had ravaged his body and was determined to win this time. Our father was only expected to live for a few months, so Valarie and I began making several trips from Dallas to East Texas to spend as much time with him as possible. In late September of that year he was placed in hospice care when his body began shutting down. Valarie and I took off work to be with him. He wasn’t expected to live longer than a week. We sat with him for three weeks and watched him hallucinate from the morphine.
Daddy had been a Minister of Music in the Baptist church for several years and was very skilled in woodworking. I sat next to his hospital bed in his favorite living room chair and watched him build things in the air. His hands gripped an imaginary hammer and nails, using the level to be sure everything was set just right. He also conducted his church choir. Though no music played, I could hear it in my head just by watching his movements. The most difficult thing to watch, however, was his argument with God. He wasn’t ready to go, and couldn’t understand why his time had come. He was only 74 and felt he had more to do, most importantly, watch his granddaughters grow and mature. He wanted to see where life would lead them. My father, a devoted Christian who held a Master’s degree in religious education, was pissed off and I was afraid he would never make peace with the inevitable outcome. I wanted to curl up next to him in his bed to comfort him, or maybe comfort myself, but I was afraid I would hurt his now frail body that was in constant pain.
My sister and I stayed in that house with our step-mother as we tried to tend to his needs, keep him company, and let him know he was not alone. The world stopped for us. Nothing else mattered during these three weeks. The house was like a cocoon, guarding us from everything outside those walls during this precious time.
During out third week with Daddy he experienced a second wind. His appetite returned, he could sit up a little higher in bed. He wanted to try to stand up and see if he could walk. We all knew he couldn’t, but we felt relieved to have him back, to hear him talk to us as Daddy always did. “Pass me the sugar, Sugar,” he would say with a twinkle in his eye. That night there was suddenly no anger and he wanted to begin his funeral preparations. Valarie sat right next to him writing down every word he said, wanting to be sure his wishes were met. I, on the hand, sat in the corner. Daddy’s bargaining with God may have stopped, but I wasn’t done with mine just yet.
No one knew just how long Daddy would hold, so Valarie and I worked out a plan to take turns going back and forth between Dallas and his house in East Texas. When my turn came to return to Dallas for three days, Daddy and I had a fight just before I was to leave. I ended up walking out of the house without giving him a kiss or an “I love you.” I just threw a goodbye at him and walked out the door. I was fuming. I had to stop for gas before I could begin my three-hour drive, so I pulled over at the gas station just behind his home. As I stood outside the car, the cool, autumn wind gently blowing, something told me to go back. It was as if the wind had whispered to me. I walked into the house and headed straight for my father’s bed. Leaning down over him I whispered, “I love you, Daddy,” and laid a kiss on his forehead. I can still remember how soft his skin felt. He looked at me with his crystal blue eyes, and what seemed to be relief, and said, “I love you, too Sugar.” I drove back to Dallas in peace. At 6:08 AM two mornings later I received a call from my sister. “He’s gone,” she whispered in the phone.
It has taken me a few years to understand what my sister was saying in her sermon. Now when I ponder the question if Daddy’s was a holy death, I think, yes. It wasn’t pretty like the images this term conjures up. A holy death is not a stream of light falling down around the dying as you sit next to them, your hands cupped under your chin. A holy death is feeling tired and broken, but you stay beside them. A holy death is cleaning the disease, like used coffee granules, from their chin with a soft touch. A holy death is being given the gift of time as you sit and watch their bodies shut down. It’s being given the nudge to go back and say goodbye.