In the Valley of the Shadow of Death

A little over three weeks ago, I entered the valley of the shadow of death. I feared this day would come. I felt its imminence and had hoped I would be ready, but who can ever be ready to watch their parent die? Maybe you’re like me and you’ve always wondered if the movies are accurate at all. This is my story, not anyone else’s and certainly not an idyllic deathbed scene, but as always, I strive for truth plainly spoken. So here it is.

My day began with a phone call from the ICU nurse. This was not wholly unexpected as I had given consent just a day earlier to attempt a repair on his perforated bowel. As she held the phone to his ear, I asked my dad what he wanted me to do for him. His answer? Push the magic button. Less than half a day later, I was headed to Idaho, unsure of what would come, yet dreading what felt like the inevitable.

I was the designated legal medical decision maker, so the doctors came and looked at me, waiting for an answer. The irony of that. Who could be mentally or emotionally prepared to make the choice to remove nutrition, to start the morphine drip, to remove life giving antibiotics and oxygen? That was my gut-wrenching duty (along with my siblings input) and no matter how many times the doctors and nurses assured me, it felt horribly wrong. It felt like I was making him die and still, I replay those pivotal scenes like a nightmare.

At first I was hopeful. Then the hours dragged on like a cruel form of emotional torture, watching him try to get out of bed, wanting to go home. This was not going to happen for him though and so we kept vigil at his bed side. They assured us the waiting was worse than what he was going though. I doubt that. I saw it in his eyes. He knew what was happening.

Moments of deep sadness and sweet remembrance were mingled together in sharp juxtaposition. My siblings and I recalled stories of times past, times that would never be again. I felt the injustice as I watched patients rounding the floor of the hospital in their gowns, knowing eventually they would go home.

Suddenly his breathing changed. We made phone calls and every family member got to say their good byes. Even though coherent words were absent, he heard. He heard the love in those voices and his eyes said he understood. I just wish he could have said, “I love you” one more time.

What felt like a hundred times, we released him to heaven and Jesus, assuring him that we would carry on as best we could without him. The chaplains came and went, offering prayers, kind words and listening ears. Comforting, but even this felt like a hollow religious exercise. We held his hand and sang old hymns to him, probably more for us than him.

As his breathing grew labored, I began coming unnerved. My stomach felt like I had been on a roller coaster and the bottom dropped out, except in a sickening way, not a fun way. Our ambling around the halls and floors of the hospital became frequent, looking for a respite of what we knew was coming.

I wish I could say that some supernatural presence was felt, but it wasn’t. What I can say is that my prayers were answered for a short duration of the process, that my siblings and I had beautiful synergy and that my dad left this earth surrounded by his children’s love.

I walked through the valley of the shadow of death, comforted by my eternal hope but nearly crushed by the horrendous journey. It seems unfair, like a sudden reversal of fortune. I came out alive and went home; he never left the valley. Now I’m the one with all the sadness, he with all the joy.

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Don’t Forget

So many people are profoundly affected by the death of an actor or actress. This week, we lost both- Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall- one by choice, the other by natural cause. We react. We recoil. Then, depending on perspective, we respond to the reaction. CrAzY!

I never cease to be amazed at both sides that get their shorts in knots over these things:

“Why do we care so much about an actor committing suicide when there is practical genocide happening in the Middle East?” “How could such a talented actor, who has inspired and entertained millions, just up and kill himself? There must be some cause- financial problems, a life threatening disease, an unhappy marriage, etc.”

We analyze and pontificate and postulate. We read articles, trying to figure it out, somehow hoping it weren’t true.

Two things are true:

  1. The world and its crises are not on the same playing field as the loss of a talented actor to which millions of people relate with- i.e.- they are not comparable issues.
  2. Somewhere in the midst of it all, loss of life gets sensationalized and “social media-ized” and then we’ve missed the whole point.

Death comes to all and it is never pretty.

I can’t eradicate Ebola. I can’t find homes for all the refugees. I can’t stop every person who is suicidal. I can’t ease the ever-present racial tensions.

But don’t forget these are people. Loss of a human life is always devastating – for any cause and in every situation. We have to recognize that. Robin Williams was a father, husband, brother, friend, uncle, son- and yes, he was a talented guy whose screen presence will be remembered. The countless images of sickly patients waiting to die on gurneys- they belong to a family somewhere. The images of waif like children sitting homeless on the dirt- that is someone’s hungry three year old. The images of a grieving African American mother- she lost her son to violence this week.

Life matters. What we say, do and think matters. Love matters. I might not be able to change the world, but I can make the small world I live in a better place. I can spread love, have joy, offer hope, give help, and promote peace. I can grieve with humanity at the loss of life and offer hope for eternity. I can remember that these are people and not simply news stories.