Tomorrow, June 14, 2019, will be 26 years since my dad died.
I think about him every single day.
I remember when his life began to end.
It was actually a comment he made that my mind goes back to when I think of his final illness. It was his birthday in February. He turned 61, and after he opened my card, he looked up and said, “Well, I probably won’t live another year. My dad died when he was 61, and I guess I will, too.”
I checked a few years later in death records online and found my Papaw actually lived a couple years longer than that, but for whatever reason Dad had it in his head, and it was almost like he was resigned to a way-too-early death.
Because 61 is not old. I’m 57 as I write this, and though I have a few health issues, I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near death. Not a natural one at least. Everything else is up to God’s timing.
I held my breath for the year my husband was 61, not because I’m superstitious but just because I was struck with how young and healthy my husband is, and how tired and worn out Dad seemed by that age.
Dad grew up knowing hunger and need, but also love and compassion. His hard childhood, decades of smoking, and about twenty years of addiction to painkillers took a physical toll on his body.
So on March 4 that year he was out chopping up and shoveling snow on top of ice in their driveway when he had his first heart attack.
One of the neighbors who was helping ran in to call an ambulance, and from then on life was never the same.
I was in the emergency room with him when he coded.
He had just given me our special look, the one that meant I would get what he was going to say next, and then pointed up to a corner of the ceiling and said, “Look! I see an angel!”
And the steady alert started.
They rushed me out of the room as they worked on him, closing the blinds because I had my nose pressed to the glass watching his face as they worked on his heart.
They didn’t know I had been looking tragedies and injuries in the face for almost all my life. I still can’t understand why, when someone could be dying, they try to send the ones who love them away.
There is a time to every season under heaven. Even death.
But not that day.
Dad stayed in the hospital for a few weeks. He had procedures and tests, drugs and therapies, and came home to wait for the date of his scheduled bypass surgery.
Five days before that date, on April 14, he had his second heart attack.
I got the call and rushed to the hospital. On the way, there was a song that played on YES-FM that got me through that frantic drive. “Carry Me” by Legend 7.
“The love of the Father is always guaranteed, the hands of the Father will always…carry me.”
I didn’t know at the time how prophetic that song was. I counted on Dad’s faith to guide my life. I was lazy about developing my own. And while that night my thoughts were on Dad’s love, Dad’s hands, in the 26 years since, I have experienced God’s love and care in deeper ways than I could have imagined back then.
But I still long for the physical hands and arms of my dad.
They did a triple bypass, but the second heart attack had done too much damage. He wasn’t up and walking the next day, he stayed weeks in the step down unit, and most of that time he was sedated.
He reached a point where the medical staff wanted to invoke his signed living will, indicating he didn’t want to be kept alive on machines. He’d seen it too many times as a pastor.
I for one wasn’t ready to unplug and wait to see what happened, not when Dad was just a little beyond consciousness. So we decided to bring him out of sedation and ask what he wanted to do.
Food and water? Yes.
Medicine for a kidney infection? Yes
Oxygen to help you breathe easier? Yes
If your heart stops, should they try to resuscitate? Another nod yes.
Hmmm. Everyone is entitled to change their mind.
So we asked them to wean him off the i.v.’s, give us pill versions of his meds, and oxygen, and instructions so we could take him home.
We had two weeks more.
Two weeks of living, with his wife and mother, kids and grandkids, fussing over him not eating enough, late nights spent talking with one of us kids while Mom slept so she could work during the days.
And that last day and night.
All the family had been over. Dad sat in his wheelchair cleaning out the garage, handing things that would explode to my husband and telling him to throw them in the burning barrel. The kids climbed on him and pushed his chair around. He ate a big bowl of fresh strawberries with sugar and milk, and later bargained with me to reduce his tube feeding by half because of those extra calories.
When everyone else had gone home I helped him down on his sleeping bag on the floor, where he had preferred to sleep for years, and tried to make him comfortable on that hot June night. After hours of sleeplessness and sporadic conversation, he agreed to let me help him up on the couch.
So we sat side by side, my arm around his shoulders as he leaned into me.
It occurred to me that I kind of liked being the strong one for once.
The sun was coming up and the air had finally cooled. Dad turned his head a little to look at me, and he gave me our look again. He raised his eyebrows, wiggled them a little, and laid his head down on my shoulder with a long sigh.
Finally. I sat still, wanting to make sure he was really asleep before laying him down and covering him with a light blanket, adjusting the oxygen canula on his nose. His blood sugar tested high, so I called my older sister to come give him a shot of insulin on her way to work.
I lay back down in Dad’s sleeping bag, and I felt like he was hugging me. My oldest son, four at the time, was staying the night, and when he came down the stairs I had him crawl in the bag with me. He felt Dad’s hug as well.
And though I didn’t realize it until my older sister came in and knew right away he was gone, Dad had died in my arms.
Every day since, I have looked at my life through a different lens. What would Dad think of…my kids, my life, my calling, this meal, this newly mowed lawn?
Ordinary things take on significance when I am saving them up to tell to someone I love.
Because I know when I get to heaven, I can spend as long as I want filling him in.
Twenty-six years. Lots of things to talk about.