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I felt as if I were a willful teenager again, with my father shaking me by the shoulders to bring me to my senses. Only now,
he could not grab me. He could not even speak to me, although he desperately mumbled strange sounds. All that was left of the man were his eyes, pounding against my heart with their steely gray intensity.
As everyone who knew him even casually could attest, my father had eyes that laughed before the rest of his face could catch up. Some of us, especially his children, knew that, on those rare occasions when his temper flared, it happened first in his eyes. With a mere glance, he could nip horseplay in the bud at the dinner table. Now those eyes were almost always reporting an emotion we had never seen in our dad. The one for whom the glass was always half full, who always landed on his feet in every circumstance, was more terrified of waking than of dying.
Have you ever seen someone wail without actually being able to articulate a cry, his heaving chest and terrified visage giving the secret away? Larger than life since my childhood,
this great man was now as helpless as an infant and more pitiful than any life I had ever known, his gaunt flesh wasting and yellowing with every passing week.
At the age of seventy-eight, James Horton had been diagnosed with a benign brain tumor that required immediate surgery. At first, a shunt released some of the fluid on his brain,
but a further surgery was necessary to excise the rapidly growing lump before it interrupted vital brain functions. This surgery failed, and before long we realized that my father would not recover.
He lived for nearly a year, however, almost paralyzed from head to toe. Since even his face had lost muscular control, his eyelids drooped, exposing their red interior. It was as if his whole face had melted like wax, and we could hardly recognize him --- except for the eyes, which were always filled with emotion,
usually unspeakable pain. But occasionally, and more frequently toward the end, they evidenced hope and a confidence that came from another place.
We prayed for weeks that the Lord would take him home.
We would place our son, just a few months old, in his namesake's listless arms and watch my dad's heaving chest signal his delight. Even then, it was always a bittersweet visit for my father,
and for us.
The Gibraltar of the family, my mother, fussed over his bedside, nervously fluffing his pillows at fifteen-minute intervals,
ensuring that the intravenous fluids were properly calculated,
and organizing edifying visits from friends and children from church. In between, she read quietly in her chair while holding Dad's hand. For years, I had witnessed the remarkable care that these two people provided in our home, first to their own parents and then to fifteen elderly folks in our residential care home as I was growing up. But now she was caring for her best friend, and there was almost nothing she could do for him but fluff his pillows --- and try to hide her own daily grief. Although my mom always looked ten years younger than her actual age, these months acted like time-lapse photography,
working my father's pain into her own face and wearing her body down.
A Second Blow
Then, just two months before my father's death, Mom suffered a massive stroke while I was driving her from her sister's funeral, where she had delivered a moving eulogy. This strong and compassionate woman who had given her life to disadvantaged city kids and abandoned seniors was now herself dependent on others.
I recalled a couple of times in the past when my parents had mentioned their worst fears about old age. For my dad, a debilitating disease would be the most horrible way of death,
he said; for my mom, it was being a burden --- and from their caregiving experience they knew both well. In my darker moments,
I wondered why God would allow them to experience their worst scenarios in the last act of their play, especially when they had done so much for so many others. They had moved close to Lisa and me in our first year of marriage to be of help when they learned of our first pregnancy. Always running to the side of those who needed a strong arm, my mom was now partially paralyzed and disabled, while my dad was succumbing to an agonizing death.
I told God that it all seemed too calculated, that he seemed all too real, too involved, too present in our lives, especially my parents', as if he had cruelly dished out the very end that each most feared. Shouldn't people whose lives were all about giving to others, especially to the elderly, have a break when it comes to how they leave this life? It seemed to challenge the whole 'reap what you sow' principle: does this apply only when people deserve bad and not when they deserve good?
My wife, recovering from several especially difficult miscarriages,
found that her visits to my dad's bedside only aggravated her questions about God's goodness. It was strange to see her go through this. After all, Lisa was a Bible study teacher who devoured pretty deep theology books. Now it was all being put to the test of real life.
I had experienced death up close in our home growing up, not only with my grandparents but also with the adopted
'grandparents' in our home for the elderly. Still, Lisa and I
both struggled with the usual doubts. People suffer and even die from natural causes every day, we tried to tell ourselves.
Furthermore, old people eventually die. We all die. This doesn't mitigate the tragedy, but its inevitability and universality at least prepare us for the fact.
But why do some people suffer so much in their death?
Why is it often so slow and painful? Is death itself not horrible enough that we also have to fear dying --- a wasting and withering that threatens our cherished expectations of a good and orderly providence? Just to look at my father over the course of those ghastly months, those long and torturous weeks, was to face the most serious, existential, concrete challenges to our deeply held Christian convictions.