This is the first of three posts by Jason Coker, written in the days before and after his father died on Jan. 27.
Jan. 15, 2015
I’m a watcher in this drama — the drama of my father’s death. The most obvious fact of life has settled coldly onto my soul like frost on a flower: The best-case scenario in life is when we watch our parents die.
The only other option would be a tragedy — that we precede our parents in death. I know this tragedy as well as I want to through watching close friends bear the terrible burden of burying their child. No, if everything works out exactly as it should, and all goes as planned, we watch our parents die.
This is where I am right now. I am watching my father die. He has been a diabetic all my life and most of his, and that is his shepherd to the other side. At this point, he is conscious about half the time, and of that time he is lucid momentarily. It is in these moments of lucidity when I try my best to let him know that I love him and I am thankful for having him as my father. It is hard to do this. I’m not completely sure that he knows he is dying, although I can’t imagine that any part of him thinks he’s going to live. Since I’m not completely sure he’s aware of his own eminent death, I’m scared to say that out loud when he is lucid — these are precious moments that I don’t want to ruin with what would be devastating news to him.
But, how do you tell him you love him before he dies? How do you do that well? How do you do that at all? And this is the best-case scenario? This cruelty of life drives me to the God in whom I claim faith but with anger more than anything else.
As a boy I thought my father’s forearms were as powerful as sledgehammers. He was a tough man hardened by poverty and physical labor — a work hard, play hard existence. He was left-handed, so his left hand was naturally bigger than his right — this is the case for any construction worker. Now, a severe stroke has rendered his left arm limp, and his right arm seems to be withering away. I am not reflecting on this to diminish my father or bring any more indignity to him. I am writing this as a protest to this indignity. What else can I do? Just watch?
My father is dying, but we are all dying with him. I watch my mother help the nurses turn him, bathe him, comfort him. I watch my mother try to understand all the technical jargon that aspiring medical doctors spew out of their mouths like little children who have the stomach bug. I watch her die with every long, unpronounceable word that comes out of their mouths. Every time I hold his atrophied hand, and every time I gently rub my hand over his head, and every time I lean over to hear him whisper, I die. And at every turn, I don’t know if I am angry at life or angry at death. I don’t even know if this is life or if this is death. But I watch.
I watch as they amputate, debride, catheterize, stick, poke, prod, bandage, clean, change, inject, comfort — give up. The moral within me asks, “Is this the best way?” A sad, angry question asked by a watcher. A helpless, hopeless onlooker.
As I watch my father, I wonder if he’s still there/here. Where is the father that I’ve known all my life? What has become of him? Is it his “spirit” that I seek? Is it his soul, personality, mobile body that is missing? Has that made him someone different? Yes, yes and yes. I see my father’s eyes looking back at me but with so very little of my father in those eyes. I watch for a glimpse and glimmer of the man I know/knew. If he is not here, where is he and where did he go and where will he go from here?
I watch as my father continues to live on the edge of death. So many things go through my mind, nothing goes through my mind. I don’t know how to feel, I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel, I don’t know if how I feel is the right way to feel. I don’t know if I want him to die, I don’t know if I’m supposed to want that, I don’t know if that makes me a bad person, so I watch.
I watch all this, but I don’t pray. I’m sort of scared to pray. I’m scared to pray for a lot of reasons. Most of all, I’m scared to pray because to pray would be to acknowledge that there is a God to whom these prayers are sent. And I’m scared that there’s a God out there somewhere that allows life like this to continue. I don’t really want to believe in a God like that, but I am in an inescapable reality that demands some sort of answer from somewhere. I’m enough of a pastor to know that the “why” questions are inevitable but so unproductive and unanswerable. I’m more of the pastor that asks the “what” questions. What can I do? But that’s even worse right now. I can’t do a damn thing. The doctors can’t do a damn thing. The “what” question proves to be worse than the “why” questions, so why not just ask the “why” question?
God, why do you allow this to happen? Why do you let this happen to my daddy? Why do you let this happen to anybody’s daddy? Why do you let this happen to anybody? I think these are prayers, too, but that’s a little scary. I’m scared to pray these “why” prayers because I begin to realize how angry I am with God. So, I don’t pray; I just watch.