I arrived the night that preceded my father’s death with a heavy heart. Although I was road weary from the long trip from Texas to Ohio, I could not sleep that night. I felt antsy and restless. I had no way of knowing what the next few hours would hold, let alone that I would be there to witness my dad take his last breath. My mom, sister and brother had been holding vigil the past couple of days, so when I arrived at the hospice house I insisted they go home to rest and told them I would call if there were any changes. After they left, I made up the sofa bed in my dad’s hospice room and settled in for the night. As I looked upon his motionless body, I sensed an abiding presence of peace. It’s hard to explain. I pulled up a chair next to his bed and talked to him like it was any ordinary day. I gently laid my hands on his and said, “Dad, we’re going to have a sleepover tonight. Just you and me.” I had heard that those near death could sometimes hear you, even though they cannot physically respond. I proceeded to read to him every prayer and card we had collected from our family and friends. I read Psalm 23 three times, substituting his name, John, in the last two readings. I did not feel emotional. I was simply going through the motions of being present with my dad the best I could given the situation. I watched. I waited. I asked the nurses throughout the evening and early morning hours if he was doing okay and they gave no indication for concern. However, around three in the morning, still wide-awake, I started to notice a shift in my dad’s breathing. It didn’t seem normal so I called the nurse to his room and she ordered me to call my family immediately. I remember the call to my sister, yelling in the phone for her to come quickly, while crying and watching my dad draw his last breath. In that instance, a presence and physical peace enveloped that room and I felt an otherworldly calm. I then clearly remember looking down at my dad’s shell of a body and thinking, “Why are we so afraid of death? It’s so natural and as it should be.” I felt guilty that I was not able to reach my mom and sister and brother in time so they could be there when my dad passed that morning, but the kindly hospice nurse comforted me saying that it is futile to question it, that “death plays out as it should.” God’s presence was undeniable – this must be what the Bible talks about as peace that passes understanding.
Looking back seven years ago, I am still in awe and humbled that I was at my dad’s bedside to share his final moments. Someone once told me that when a parent dies, the impact is inevitable and unexpected. From that firsthand experience, I am continually reminded of what went through my mind in those early morning hours and what I’ve carried in my heart from that sacred moment of my dad’s passing. It is from that experience I hold fast to this reality: my life is indeed short and I have to give serious thought to what I claim as truth and live accordingly.
Since last summer, I’ve attended three funerals, including my father-in-law’s, and the mom and the dad of two different home group families. I wouldn’t necessarily say I “enjoy” going to funerals, but I do believe they provide a unique opportunity for serious reflection for those that remain. As The New York Times bestseller Regina Brett wrote, “Some people hate funerals. I find them comforting. They hit the pause button on life and remind us that it has an end. Every eulogy reminds me to deepen my dash, that place on the tombstone between our birth and our death.” As Linda Ellis’ famous poem, “The Dash,” states: “For that dash represents all the time that they spent alive on earth.”
The point of death is swift and powerful, while the time that spans our birth and death (the dash) asks every human being an imperative question: “What truth am I building my life on and how am I living in context of what I profess to believe.” In Rick Warren’s 2006 TED talk, “A Life of Purpose,” he shares, “… everybody’s got a world view. Everybody’s betting on something. You’re betting your life on something, you just better know why you’re betting on what you’re betting on … everybody’s betting his or her life on something. And when I made a bet, I happened to believe that Jesus was who He said He was.” Like Pastor Warren, I’m betting it all on Jesus Christ.
Our death is inescapable. My dad was born and my dad died. His dash was comprised of 85 very full years (Jan. 16, 1924—Sept. 30, 2009). He accomplished much, he loved his family dearly, and most importantly, he believed in Jesus Christ as his Savior. When your loved one sits by your deathbed, and time is suspended for that brief and sacred moment as you depart this earthly life, what will be said of the truth you held supreme and how did you live out those days in between?
“All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” -1 Peter 1:24-25