I have watched two people die: my daughter and my father. Both occurred in controlled hospital settings, both were expected events, and both (God’s sustaining grace notwithstanding) hurt like hell. Otherwise, I have been entire shielded from direct experience with death for most of my life. All my grandparents were gone by the time I was 13. I barely remember their funerals.
While there no algorithm exists to calculate which loss felt worse (daughter Naomi, or father Jack), the fact that my daughter was 15 days old and my father was 82 certainly made the former unutterably more jarring than the latter. Really, the two experiences are incommensurable.
Naomi succumbed to a rare chromosomal condition called Partial Trisomy 9, my father Jack, in addition to multiple health challenges, to the common malady called renal failure. About 20 years ago, he was diagnosed with inclusion body myocititis (IBM), an auto-immune disease that causes progressive muscular degeneration. That’s what slowed him down, put him against a cane, then behind a walker, then finally in a wheelchair. Oh, and he also had vascular dementia. (Recall-wise, he was progressively iffy on certain things, people, and dates during his last year and a half on earth.)
One of my father’s maxims was, “Most people worry about things that never happen,” the same basic idea behind Mark Twain’s, “I’m an old man now and I’ve seen a great many problems I my life, except that most of them never happened.” Sadly (in a way), he never took his own advice when it came to the path he would walk with the IBM condition. He never wanted to join any online forums for fellow sufferers, was never interested in participating in clinical trials nor in trying this or that alternative treatment. He wanted a magic bullet, and he anxiously fretted about what the next decline would look like.
Lest this become maudlin and send the sane reader away, the rest of the story is shot through with grace and mercy. First, there was my prayer for my father, beginning on a pilgrimage my wife and I led in the spring of 2017. I was kneeling inside the cave in Bethlehem where St. Jerome translated the Septuagint Bible into Latin, and the words came, “Lord, heal my dad and be gentle with him.”
I can’t count how many times I prayed that prayer, daily, afterward. And while it will never be known if he experienced a bona fide physical healing from his multiple medical problems, that two-fold prayer was answered. First, his vascular dementia virtually vanished in his closing week on earth. He was lucid, clear-thinking, no slurred speech. He was sharp as a tack and wanted to talk about issues that arose in my recent interview on fatherhood and manhood with Dr. Gordon Dalbey.
My mother, Marian, told me that he didn’t seem all that interested in the Dalbey interview when she shared it with him on the home computer two weeks earlier. Appearances can be deceiving. For in the ICU, my father wanted to talk about the issues that arose in that Rev. Dalbey interview: about his own father, about God as Father, and about the insights connecting all the above. I ended up reading to him parts of Dalbey’s fine book Fight Like a Man: A New Manhood for a New Warfare.
So the extraordinary lifting of his dementia was the first answered prayer. It spared me the hatred of it that would arise in my heart when talking to him. Second, my father managed inexplicably to dodge a sizable list of disastrous medical outcomes that could easily, as his doctors warned us, have befallen him: there was no eleventh-hour heart attack; his severe pneumonia cleared up for the most part; we were spared any debates over feeding tube protocols; and there were no nursing home scenarios, which would have been excruciating, owing to a bed shortage in Nova Scotia that would likely have meant him being sent a hundred miles away. I even prevented a nurse from accidentally drawing blood, which, for reasons too complex to describe to her, would have plunged him into an ocean of pain. All of these scary options were taken off the table by the gentle Father of Providence.
There were more graces. On Friday morning, April 27, around 5:30 in the morning, my sister Cindy was crying softly by his bed during the vigil shift we split. My father woke up and asked her, in his affectionately gruff way, “Why are you crying?”
“Because I wish I could trade places with you,” she replied.
He looked at her intently, and said, “I’m okay, Cindy; I don’t mind.” And drifted back to sleep.
Not too long after, his eyes opened, and he blurted, “Come on God, let me go, please…come on.” Then a very long pause. And then he perked up: “Oh—okay,” as though some inner point of disagreement had been amicably settled.
Back he went into that peaceful slumber.
Later in the morning, a kindly looking man turned the corner into the unit to visit my father. Then I recognized him—a team leader on my first Challenge weekend, the youth wing of the Cursillo Movement, on November 4-5, 1979. That weekend was the occasion of strong graces for me and my family. I remembered Deacon Wilf Boudreau from my framed picture of the weekend, and I had not seen him since. Yet here he was, almost 40 years later, his face shining with happy confidence. We reminisced about what the Lord has done in our family, beginning, in important ways, with that retreat weekend. Deacon Wilf said a prayer with me, and for Jack.
Three hours later, in the bosom of the Easter Season, my dad quietly slipped into his own Holy Saturday experience.
I’ll mention one more grace. A few days before he went to meet his Lord, my dad—who was, shall we say, not prone to overt public compliments to my mother—blurted out to her at the foot of the bed, “I just want to tell you that you look beautiful today.” My flummoxed mom caught her breath and smiled, and my sister and I wondered how long it would take her to retrieve her jaw off the floor. It was lovely.
Our task going forward is to continue adjusting to the new normal of not being able to call or see him in person again in this life. Jack’s idols included Muhammad Ali, Archie Bunker (he played Archie to my Meathead many times when I was a brain dead liberal), Elvis, Jack Nicklaus, Father Mike Scanlan, TOR, and Bobby Hull. He also despised the Montreal Canadiens, and all their pomps and all their works. I miss him.
I have re-read parts of A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis, the blunt opening line of which tells the truth: “no one told me grief feels so like fear.” That’s about right. These days, I feel fragile, oversensitive to noise, prone to getting teary-eyed over mildly sentimental things. Sarcasm on Twitter and Facebook vexes me, especially my own. I feel the need to be around people but I don’t necessarily want them to talk to me.
As I finish out the second month of the “year of firsts” without him, I’m still a strange blend of numb and anxious. There is no guidebook to grief. There’s only the present moment in which to surrender—to be. As the Big Book of A.A., with which my father was familiar, puts it, “time takes time.”
Requiescat in pace, Dad. Give St. Naomi a squeeze for us.