If it takes a village to raise a child, the same is true when life draws to a close and death ushers a loved one into the greater presence of God. Loss, particularly death, is difficult to face apart from the gift of community.
My father, 93, died on July 10, after a brief decline. A year ago he was tending tomato vines and cutting grass on his John Deere riding mower, purchased on his 91st birthday.
Last fall, family and neighbors noticed Dad wasn’t as sharp. He was pale, appeared tired and ventured out less. Dad continued to drive and manage family finances. He and a nursing aide cared for my mother, weakened by a stroke the previous year. Things, however, were changing.
In March my father was diagnosed with renal failure, then kidney cancer. By the end of May, my parents’ health necessitated a move to an assisted-living facility near me, an hour from their home of sixty years.
Frail but determined, Dad walked into the facility on moving day. The first week, he joined Mom in the dining hall for a few meals. His taste for food waned except for ice cream and sherbet. The next five weeks were spent in bed, mostly asleep. He roused for visits from family and neighbors or when granddaughters brought vanilla ice cream. Watching the end play out was tough on my mother, but she insisted they stay together, in the two-bed suite that became home.
Dad entered hospice care one week after the move. There was little pain or struggle. Five weeks later, my father died as he had lived, peaceful and content, in the presence of family.
A host of unlikely saints, the community of God’s people, paved the road for Dad’s movement from life to life. At a doctor’s appointment shortly before the move, Dad’s physician of thirty years, a forward-thinking Baptist with a salty mouth and a big heart, cried when she said good-bye. Office staff wiped back tears and offered hugs along with words of gratitude for the pound cakes and collards he delivered.
A pharmacist who filled my parents’ prescriptions and drugstore clerks who scooped butter pecan ice cream and mixed Mom’s beloved orangeades, sent good wishes. Our family dentist and eye doctor wrote notes as well.
A variety of caregivers helped usher Dad from this life to the next. His Jewish nephrologist, Hindu oncologist and Muslim geriatrician treated my Christian father with interest, kindness and respect. Each agreed with his directives that comfort and dignity be the standard for end-of-life care. “We’ll make you as comfortable as we can,” one of them said. “We won’t even prick your finger.” Along with attorneys and accountants, realtors and insurance agents, these saints were gifts of grace to my father and our family.
Dad was the oldest living member of the Baptist church that had nurtured his faith since birth, but numbers had dwindled. The few surviving friends visited or called in the days prior to my parents’ move. During his final week folks brought the freestone peaches my mother craved, shared old photos of Dad fishing with a buddy, or told stories about growing up on the family farm.
My parents endeared themselves to the staff on their hall – Gus, who repaired their air conditioning, Tasha who brought Dad his favorite sherbet, and Wendy who cleaned their suite, and on some days, would close their door and pray a prayer filled with Pentecostal power. Amanda and Marquita, two aides who were with us the day Dad died, single moms who struggled to make a life for themselves and their kids, stayed long after their shift ended, just so they could be present when the end came. I wonder if they would consider themselves part of the communion of God’s people. I hope they know they are.
Dad died peacefully, a little after 10 pm. His granddaughters left an hour before he died, having laughed and cried throughout the day, offering words of gratitude and love since early that morning. My wife, my mother and I were present when Dad entered the church triumphant. A hospice nurse came to confirm what we already knew. I met Donna twice, spoke with her on the phone once, but that evening, it was as if she’d known us for years. Even the gentleman who came to transport my father’s body to the mortuary displayed kindness and respect. After hundreds of such calls his words carried more heartfelt condolence than formality. Perhaps, I thought, he too had once bid a father good-bye.
Viewing a deceased loved one elicits mixed emotions. But there was something about a public viewing that seemed right, even holy. Dad, dressed in a suit, with his retirement tie tack and flag lapel pin, looked ready for church, a place so central to his being.
The month before, my wife and I, with my mother’s blessing, planned my father’s funeral. The director who assisted us was a friend and member of the church I serve. Another funeral director, though he did not know my father, knew me. We shared a bond, from years of walking with people through loss and grief. When I learned he and our director friend had prepared my father’s body, I thanked them. They were caring, compassionate professionals who played an important role in the process. I wanted them to feel my appreciation.
My gratitude extended to the ministers whose words captured Dad’s character and charm, to my friend who sang “The Old Rugged Cross” at Dad’s request, and to the musicians who played beloved hymns at his funeral. I offered my thanks to the two young soldiers who folded the flag that covered Dad’s coffin and presented it to our family. And I made sure, before we left the cemetery, to shake hands with the workers, covered in red clay, who dug my father’s grave. By burying Dad, they helped us lean into the reality that his life had ended but ours must go on. In doing so, they too played a role in caring for him and for my family.
From the doctor or midwife who brings us into this world to the people who cover our graves or scatter our ashes, we cannot live apart from the care and concern of others. But they move on and so must we, clinging to the grace of good memories, realizing that life will never be the same. In retrospect, we give thanks as beneficiaries of light during our darkest moments, light from sacred and secular sources. All of them, whether they know it or not, helped us affirm, by faith, that which we acknowledge as mystery yet embrace as truth – we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Amen.