My Dad died 25 years ago today when his life was cut short by cancer at the age of 65. This is the first of a series of posts by which I want to observe the anniversary and remember my Dad – his life, his death, my life with him, and my life without him.
In CS Lewis’ book A Grief Observed (written following the death of his wife), he noted:
“Slowly, quietly, like snowflakes – like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night – little flakes of me, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes – ten seconds – of the real H. would correct all this. And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again. The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.”
This is the grief of a spouse who has lost his soulmate. Because of the woman I married, I can believe that the untimely death of a spouse is a sharper and more profound pain than the death of a parent. However, 25 years later I still regard the loss of my Dad as one of the formative events of my adult life, and I still carry around a hole in my heart that misses him. Snowflakes like Lewis described have been falling on the image of my Dad for a quarter of a century. But once-visible edges that usually stay buried under the drifts can be suddenly uncovered by a passage of scripture or a joke or an old note in his handwriting. When such occasions come – sometimes with tears – it’s a concession to the fact that someone I loved is gone. I’ve also come to understand that we don’t necessarily “get over” our loss. Grieving can be a lifelong process, and I’m okay with that.
I’ll do my best to present facts as I remember them, but please forgive me if there are inaccuracies. A lot of snow has fallen since 1984.
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My Dad died well. Toward the end of his life, he knew that if he was healed of cancer, that would be another of God’s gifts to him. If he died, he knew that he was going to see Jesus. For him, it was a win-win situation, and we witnessed hope at work in him. Final-stage cancer patients typically receive increasing doses of morphine to control pain, but my Dad’s morphine intake was decreasing. At the same time, he had requested and was receiving communion from a minister of his church who brought and served it to him every day. That food nourished parts of him that were hidden from the eye and from medical knowledge, giving him strength even as his body weakened.
During the last day or two before he died, bleeding in Dad’s brain allowed him to travel back and forth between different times of his life. He talked more and more of people and situations unfamiliar to me, and only occasionally came back to visit territory that I also recognized. It seemed to me that the lines securing his boat to the old moorings were coming loose as he prepared for his final journey. I was at his side, whispering in his ear that he could go, that he no longer needed to stay here.
There was a point at which I had a strong sense that he – everything that made this person I’d known as my Dad – was gone. His body still breathed, but he wasn’t there; I was looking at his empty house. Then each successive breath grew shorter and more shallow until the next one didn’t come. In my head I had known this was coming, but when the curtain came down, the finality of his death hit me like a freight train. As long as there had been even one more breath, the possibility remained that he might get better and come back to us. Not now.
It took a little longer for hope to appear. It crept in quietly, shining a surprisingly bright light into death’s shadow and offering faith’s deep reassurance that death no longer has the final word. I believe with all my heart that I will see my Dad again, healthier and stronger and more full of life than I can begin to imagine. Meanwhile, I now regard death differently. I felt like I had seen the end of my Dad’s old life and the launch of his new one, and it injected new confidence and reality into that aspect of my faith. It also enlarged the place in me from which I can empathize with and offer comfort to those who face the loss of a loved one. While I would never choose the circumstances by which these gifts came to me, I wouldn’t trade them for the world.