My Dad died Friday evening. Mom was on her way over to see him in his memory care facility, but Jesus, who holds "the keys to death and Hades," slipped the key in the lock and opened the door.
Today Dad is in heaven. And we are getting washed around by alternate waves of grief and urgency–to make plans and respond to family and praying friends.
Friday evening I was on the front row of a political forum, listening to Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal tell his story of how he found Christ (or Christ found him) when I got the call. Media vita in morte sumus. In the midst of life we are in death. The ultimate disruption.
Dad's life has been severely disrupted by the deepening onset of Lewey-Body Dementia and Parkinsons. He fell and broke his hip in the summer of 2011. He has spent the last four years in that place where none of us want to be–losing his brilliant mind and his independence, living in a wheelchair. He did not go quietly into that good night. He hated the limitations of both.
At one point he was able to convince the nice people walking into his care facility that he was just on his way out. They held the door open for him and he was free! What do you do when you're an escapee in a wheelchair? You roll down the up-hill street to the Wal-Mart parking lot where another nice lady sees you wheeling around, looking confused and gives you and your wheelchair a lift back home–all before anyone discovers you're missing, thank heaven.
But while he hated the journey into loss, he loved Jesus. Loved my Mom. Loved me. Knew both of us till the end.
I'm still processing our loss. So I'll close by re-posting this blog from last April when he first went into hospice.
What you need to let go of the people you love
One phone call and life changes: “Lael, this is Mom. They’ve called in hospice for Dad.”
I fly to Texas immediately where I’m learning about hospice. It’s no longer just for critical care at the very end of life. With advanced Lewy-body dementia and Parkinson’s disease my Dad continually cycles between somewhat relaxed and hyper-agitated. Psalm 31:7 describes it well: “…you have seen my affliction; you have known the distress of my soul.” Clearly Dad’s soul is in distress. Like the unforgettable quote from George Washington, “I die hard.”
Whoever tries to sell death as simply the turn of the wheel in the circle of life is so deceived. Death is horrific. The ultimate brokenness of our world. Death may have lost its final sting but dying stings hard every day. Hospice can provide the meds to mitigate the sting. So I’m glad for that. Dad’s face is not as anguished.
But as hospice begins their palliative care Dad is not as present as he was. The big-gun meds bring on the smoke and fog. He no longer remembers that he is a brilliant petroleum engineer, retired oil company executive, corner office in downtown Houston. But he remembers Jesus.
“Dad, are you ready to see Jesus?”
A few days later Jack and I roll him out of the Memory Care day room and into his private room. We need God’s word in the middle of this mess of death so we read Psalm 31 to him. “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing…I have become like a broken vessel…But I trust in you, O LORD; I say, ‘You are my God.’ (Psalm 31:9-10)”
“Is that what you say, Dad?”
“Yes, I say that.”
Psalm 31:15 reads, “My times are in your hand; rescue me from the hand of my enemies.” This disease is such an enemy. I’ve struggled with how to pray for Dad. And here it is: “Lord, please rescue Dad from the enemy of this disease.”
We need God’s presence too so when we finish reading Psalm 31 I ask, “Dad, do you want us to pray for you?”
We stand on either side of him. From his reclining “Jerry” chair he reaches out his hands to take Jack’s and mine. But before we can begin, he begins. He is speaking, but we can’t understand him. We wait for a pause so we can pray for him. But there is no pause. He goes on and on…what is he saying?
His voice gets stronger. “And bless (unintelligible)….and bless (unintelligible)…” He is praying for us! And if there was any doubt, in his strongest voice yet he concludes, “And now thank you for this food we are about to eat. In Jesus’ name, amen.”
No food in sight and hours before dinner, but the oft-prayed prayer enfolds us in his heart-felt benediction. We walk out of his room with big grins and a sense of…This holy moment is brought to you by…Jesus. “Thank you,” I whisper.
On Easter Sunday my Mom and I announce our visit singing “Up from the grave he arose…” And Dad chimes right in, “with a mighty triumph o’re his foes…” The man who cannot always remember our names remembers some of the words and when he can’t sing the words he vocalizes every note. Then, on Christ the Lord is Risen today, he sings along on the aaaaaleluuia, just like Mr. Bean.
We need a fresh vision of where all this is going. So we talk about heaven. Again, fromPsalm 31:19 “Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you…” We wonder what Jesus might have “stored up” for Dad. The ultimate engineer’s “fix-it” shop? A studio loaded with blank canvas and vibrant oils where he can paint to his heart’s content?
“Maybe you’ll be able to play the organ,” Mom says. “You’ve always wanted to play the organ.”
We talk of life overcoming death. Of resurrection. We consider Dad’s failing mind, my hands bent by RA, my mom’s haywire heart beat and can see ourselves walking together in eternity with easy, confident steps. No pain or shortness of breath. It is real and solid. It is Jesus rising from the grave and cooking fish on the shore and eating with his friends.
It’s the ending that all the best stories want to borrow…Titanic…Gladiator…but it is not wishful thinking or Hollywood putting a bow on the ending for better ratings. It’s not something we’ve borrowed in from somewhere else.
Resurrection is our story. As followers of Jesus we own it.
And when it comes to letting the ones you love go, there is nothing to compare. We’re not getting older. We’re getting closer.
"Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD! (Psalm 31:24)
(The Visitation/Memorial for my Dad, Don Fitzgerald, will be at Carriage Inn in Conroe, TX (9-10:00 am) on Friday, June 19th. Graveside: 12:00 pm at Woodlawn Cemetery in Houston. More details at Cashner Funeral Home, Conroe.)