The last week of my life is a blur. It began about a week ago with a text message from my mom. I was preparing to officiate the wedding of a couple from our church, and my phone buzzed, reminding me I hadn’t turned it off yet. “The doctor was just here and said dad has ‘maybe’ 24 hours left. Maybe less.” My heart froze, and I lost my breath for a moment. I managed to pull it together to finish the wedding and immediately after began scrambling to make arrangements to get from CO to TN. As I did, I reminded myself that God was in control, and that in him every step of this journey belonged precisely where it was located.
When I landed in Nashville the following day and turned on my phone I was relieved to get a text message from mom – “Pop is still waiting! Shallow breath with space between. See you soon.” As I made my way from the airport to the hospital hospice facility, my mind drifted to thoughts of my dad. Funny things he said. His mannerisms. Memories of better times. My brother Jason met me at the hospital and helped me with my bags. He’d just arrived earlier that afternoon, cutting short a vacation to Disney World he and his family had been planning for a year. We laughed about how he just knew dad was going to figure out how to mess up his vacation! He showed me the way through the corridors of St. Thomas Hospital, this place that has become all too familiar these last couple months, to the Alive Hospice facility.
Nothing could have prepared me for the vision of my dad lying in that bed, unconscious. In the three weeks since my last visit, the toll of dad’s battle with cancer was striking. His face was gaunt, his eyes sunken, and his hair nearly gone. I pushed back my shock and moved to his side, took his hand and said, “Hey pop, I’m here. Well…you’ve looked better.” It was the kind of thing he’d have said in a moment like this. All the way to the end he never lost his great sense of humor. Unfortunately aside from his eyes moving slightly behind closed lids, there was no response. Nor would there be.
As it turned out, my dad was stubborn to the end. He held on nearly three days from the time the doctor told us “twenty-four hours or less.” Whatever he did, he was going to do it his way. Watching his body cling to life it occurred to me that God has hard-wired that into our bodies. We were made to live. Though people claim “death is just a part of life,” it wasn’t meant to be that way. We were created to live, and our bodies know it, fighting death to the very end.
Those three days were precious. My mom, brother and I lived in that hospital room with him. We laughed. We cried. We told stories. We took turns sitting by his side, never leaving him alone for a moment. We sat watching him breathe, talking to him – sharing words of love, encouragement and thanks. We reassured him that we’d be okay without him, and that Jason and I would take care of mom. Finally, it was so simple. So peaceful. With mom, Jason and I standing at his side we watched him take his last breath. We cried. We kissed him goodbye. Then we held hands around him and thanked God for dad’s life, thanked him for all the years we shared, and for this moment with him at the end.
I learned something in that moment following my dad’s last breath – regardless how prepared you think you are for that moment, you are never prepared. The sense of finality and the weight of loss was suffocating. Walking out of that hospital room and driving to my parents’ home was surreal.
The following days were filled with preparations for dad’s memorial service. He and mom had talked about what he wanted – “short and sweet” was all he asked. Three songs they picked together, a brief welcome from the funeral home director, and then a message from me. Dad asked if I would speak at his funeral. How could I refuse? Yet, how could I ever manage such a task?
As I thought about what to share, the task seemed monumental. How do you sum up someone’s life? How do you communicate what made that person so special? How do you articulate what a difference he made in your life and the lives of others? You can’t. It’s impossible. So I began to think about my dad’s life and an image began to emerge. That image was spawned as I listened to Leanne Rhimes’ a cappella version of the song Amazing Grace. It was one of my dad’s favorite songs and one he requested for his memorial service. I won’t share the whole message (you can read it online here if you want) but the image I conveyed was of a thread that wound its way from the beginning to the end of my dad’s life – a thread of amazing grace.
As I reflected on my dad’s life and heard stories from so many family members and friends, the fingerprints of God’s grace were there from beginning to end. So many things happened in my dad’s life that were such clear gifts of grace from God. Even the difficulty of these last couple months were sprinkled with grace from doctors, nurses, caregivers, family, and friends who helped my mom and dad with this difficult journey. God’s grace was there right up to the beautiful, painless end to dad’s life with those he loved most at his side. And God’s grace continued as dad drew his first breath in the presence of his Savior and realized the fullness of God’s grace face to face.
In the days following dad’s funeral last Friday, our focus has shifted from dad to mom – helping her find her way and adjust to the “new normal” of life on her own. As we all move forward, we’re holding tight to that thread of grace, because it winds its way thorough our lives as well. The thread of grace moves us forward into the days God still has ahead of us in this life, however many that may be, believing that with God every step in the journey belongs as part of a bigger plan. That sense of hope, that reassurance, is amazing grace for all of us.
Thank you to everyone who prayed with us for mercy. Those prayers were answered. Thank you for all your acts of kindness to our family over these days, weeks, months and years. As we count our blessings as a family, we count those who have loved, cared for, prayed for, and served us right at the top. We are forever grateful.