Last week I spent some time writing to process and reflect on the three years that have passed since I lost my Dad. Although it was therapy for me, encouragement from a few friends led me to share these thoughts here as well. As a prelude, as an encouragement, as a thought to accompany these words written with love here during this Holy Week, I would love to tell you that there is always death before there’s Resurrection. Those hard places in your life are often a God-ordained part of a bigger picture. He sees you. You are precious to Him, and hard is a well-worn path to holy. Instead of promising us a journey without tribulation, He laid down His life with a promise that He’d be with us through anything.
So nothing–nothing–can separate us from the love of God.
It was three years ago. Exactly three years ago, today.
There’s a baby sitting across from me at the table, on my husband’s lap. I’m ladling tiny scoops of applesauce into her mouth on a tiny spoon. Her eyes are tired but her mouth is eager. She patiently gulps tiny spoonful after tiny spoonful while I catch the slurps that slip out of the corners of her happy little mouth.
She’s the only one he never met.
Grief is like water in so many ways. When it first hits you, it’s like you’ve been dropped into rapids. The waves are swirling around you, and you feel flipped upside down and uncertain which way you need to turn to swim up. Where is the surface? When can I breathe again? When will it stop hurting?
I wipe the baby’s applesauce face and carry her to the changing table to slip her into a onesie that reminds me of him. The baby he never met. This striped yellow onesie I passed on to a friend when she had her first baby; she’s passed it back. “Arrgh” — it stares up at me, the scull and crossbones centered across her tummy — “Wipe me booty!” He would’ve loved it.
Everyone’s in bed and I’m standing at the sink when my son comes in. “Mama, I need to go to the bathroom and I have to tell you something.” My heart freezes with worry of what the next sentence will be and tears start rolling down his cheeks. I lift his seven-year-old frame up onto the counter and stare into the watery eyes that glance up at me and return to the crumb-covered kitchen floor.
“You know that movie we watched the other night?” I nod, thinking of the PG-rated, animated film he saw one afternoon the week before. “It had some scary parts, and I don’t want to go to sleep because I’m afraid I’ll have nightmares and my dreams are so real.” He erupts into a puddle that brings tears to my eyes. I want to kick myself for not screening the movie to find out about it before letting him go.
His Dad and I give hugs, give encouragement, talk about fear and about faith, and reiterate the words we hope sink deep into his heart — you’re safe. We hug, wipe tears, say good night again and as I turn back to that one pan in the sink that still needs my attention, my thoughts are there to greet me.
Applesauce. The baby had applesauce for dinner.
It seems half a world away, the night one of my worst fears came with a phone call. We were on the couch eating ice cream when my Mom’s voice was at the other end of the line. The next moment I remember, my husband is driving and I’m sitting in the passenger seat for the hospital journey and it feels like my heart, my head, the whole car — it’s all ablaze with fear.
I remember seeing him lying there on a stretcher, somehow so much like the movies and yet, so strange and foreign because this is my real life, and there in front of me is my Dad.
I’ve only been back in town for eighteen months and it feels like this new chapter in our relationship has just started, and it’s so good. I just saw him that morning and he was so, so happy, it seemed like he was going to burst at the seams.
Did he know something I didn’t?
“You should talk to him. Tell him you’re here.” My husband whispers to me with sympathetic eyes.
I look at him lying there, but it feels more like his body is there and he’s not. “Hey Dad, I’m here.” Words escape me. There is only fear.
They’re starting another treatment and I need to leave. I find out later his friends performed CPR in a parking lot. His heart stopped. His brain might’ve been without oxygen for some time. Medical terms whirl around inside my head like those little water spouts we created in science class in grade school. How do I catch anything to put it in order and make sense of it? Everything is swirling.
My oldest daughter wore a Pirate dress to church this morning. A cross the pastor and his son made together, this big wooden cross that presided over his son’s wedding, it’s front and center. He speaks from the heart, from the little stage, behind the cross, and my mind wanders.
We’re in a different waiting room and I look down at my phone and open a Bible app and stare down at the words, this eery promise I’m not sure what to make of.
Romans 8:38-39 is the verse of the day. “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The love of God — can it find me here? And what does this mean? Neither death nor life, nor angels… I want to take these words and make them into the promise I want from them: the promise that there won’t be death right now. That this won’t end in death. That’s the promise I want and try to cling to, heart and soul.
Turns out, that’s not the promise at all.
A new treatment begins and text messages crisscross the country and my brother and sister find their way to the bedside, too, and we all just sit and wait.
The cross is in front of everything at church this morning, right in the center of the service, and nearly every head in the room is bowed to pray for this pastor in town with cancer, so beloved, one we’re all rooting for. His daughter and I went to school together and it’s three years since I saw my Dad lying on that bed in that hospital room and I don’t want her to go through the same thing. I feel like if I bow my head the tears will flow, will just gush right out, so I stare up at the ceiling instead, until the incandescent lights make me close my eyes.
It was three years ago, today.
When I can open my eyes again, we move onto other prayers and my thoughts drift to the hospital room and my brother and sister far away, and my phone vibrates with a text message from my sister — Thinking of you guys today.
I’d only been home eighteen months. Dad promised if we came home he’d buy a boat so we could all enjoy time on the river together. We moved back and he held up his end of the deal, drove up one day, pulling a boat on the trailer behind him. We were delighted.
Grief changes from white-water rapids to a stream. The water’s still moving, and you’re still on the journey, but it’s slower. It’s calmer.
I remember looking at my two little boys at the time, my Dad steering that boat, the bow cutting through water, watching our sweet little town go by from the water. Two dear friends from Germany were visiting for a few days and everything just seemed picture perfect.
A little less than a year ago, friends invited us down to their house on a lake and we packed up swimsuits and children for the weekend. We rode their boat around the lake and my heart ached a little. That Saturday afternoon my youngest son made a joke and turned his head to look at me sideways, with a half-smile-half-smirk proud-of-his-joke face and a nod. It was the spitting image of my Dad and as soon as he wasn’t looking, I burst into tears.
It can feel like those smooth grief-waters unexpectedly drop off into some falls that dash you around for a moment or two, and spit you out again, so that you can just keep on floating down the stream.
It was three years ago, we paced around that hospital room for six days. We cried. I prayed for a miraculous recovery and an amazing Renaissance — the beginning of a new chapter for my Dad. We watched him breathe, and it sometimes seemed like every breath was a little harder to take than the one before. I rubbed hand sanitizer between my palms again and again, going back out to the lobby to nurse my three-month-old little girl.
My Dad was away the day she was born — returning to the town where he was born for the first time ever, at the age of sixty-four. Down in Louisiana when we sent the news that she arrived safe and sound. Funny how things happen. We took pictures the day he returned, the day he met her, her jet black hair and tiny infant eyes taking him in, him always wearing a hat and something purple. Every picture we have of him meeting one of our children for the first time, he’s wearing a hat, and something purple.
I squirt more hand sanitizer between my palms and a doctor is standing there to greet me. His long white coat reaches to his calves and he’s not much taller than me, but he has the look of a man who knows what he’s talking about, even if he isn’t able to be very gentle in the way he delivers it.
Applesauce. He says applesauce.
Normal brain activity looks like something. I can’t remember the words he used to describe it. Maybe lines? Maybe waves? Maybe sparks? It must look like some kind of purposeful action happening.
But this brain activity? It looks like applesauce.
Applesauce is not good.
“Basically, everything that made your Dad who he is is gone. We can keep him alive like this, but there is almost no likelihood he could recover. He could be in long term care like this for years, but he would probably never wake up.”
I’m a bit like that eldest son of mine, afraid to go to sleep because I don’t know what my dreams will be like. I’m scared.
It feels like that hospital room was a fish bowl, and we swam around in it for nearly a week. It was hard to come up for air. But that tiny whisper from that one verse I wanted to cling to — I heard it there and I felt it there. Maybe right now it feels like I can’t breathe, but maybe somehow it is still going to be okay. Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Infection spreads to his lungs and it looks like his body is doing what it seems to have done his whole life — it’s working so hard. But now it’s working so hard, just to breathe. Six days have passed and we all sense it — there is going to be a letting go.
We gather around his hospital bed and a chaplain comes in to pray with us. She says after talking with so many folks about him, it seems like he was a Renaissance man — she uses that very word I’d prayed and I think it’s a whisper from above, that the Renaissance I was praying for already happened. I realize he wasn’t the same Dad I had growing up. He’d become so gentle, so different. He found faith and it mattered to him.
The chaplain prays Renaissance and I cry because I know we are going to say goodbye.
It was three years ago today. My husband suggests we go out to lunch after church and I enjoy the break from arriving at home and trying to think of something for everyone to eat as quickly as possible. At home the children play outside. The boys run around with friends from the neighborhood while the girls nap the afternoon away and I strum my guitar for a few minutes and let my thoughts wander where they may.
An afternoon thunderstorm rolls in and we watch a movie together. It’s three years later and I nurse this new baby girl, the one he hasn’t met yet, and life keeps moving. The baby has just started solids and she slurps applesauce and sandwiches toast in a pan for dinner. I wash the pan in the sink and think about fear and kids’ movies and applesauce and the water running from the tap.
We pile onto a bottom bunk for prayers and give thanks for friends to play with and food to eat and reflect a bit on all the good things about the day.
I sit down to write and reflect on it all: the day, the three years, the journey through grief. I remember the U2 song Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own playing in the background when I sat at the dealership to sell the boat. I remember the purple dress I wore as we all stood around his bed, in agreement that he would be an organ donor, and we watched him take his last breath. I wore purple and I left behind yellow flowers. My oldest son sat beside me at the funeral and told me it was my turn to put my tulips — yellow ones that hadn’t opened up yet — on the casket. I asked him to do it for me, and his four-year-old legs promptly carried him up to lay them gently where they belonged.
Grief is more like a cold, gentle stream around my ankles now. The loss still stings like cold water, time flows and I feel further from remembering the sound of his voice, the light in his eyes. But I can, I do, remember the gifts. How he applied for a passport and braved the journey when I lived overseas. How he met half his grandchildren in airports, his face beaming with joy underneath a purple baseball cap.
Counting the gifts has shown me the steady hand, the steady love of God that I never lost throughout the ordeal. The still, small voice that warned me at the start of it all: death cannot separate us, was the voice that whispered at the end of the week, “Your Renaissance prayers have been answered already.”
I’m left in awe of how something so bad can somehow still be… good. How something so bitter can make all of life seem that much sweeter.
Like a smile from a toddler, proud of a good joke, the streams of life seem to keep flowing sweetly on, even if they are interrupted at times with white-water rapids.
The love that promised not to leave me found its way just a little closer.
It was three years ago, today.