The dying of the light

It has been not quite two months since my father died.  He was a month shy of his 94th birthday.

In many ways, it was a merciful passing.  He seemed to have begun a slow slide into the shadows of cognitive decline, and the family feared that he might end his days the way his mother did–emotionally unpredictable, unable to distinguish family from strangers.  We had seen the signs.

Instead, he fell, breaking his right hip for the second time.  I responded to my mother’s phone call early on a Saturday morning, and arrived to find him lying on the floor, in pain but quite lucid.  We called the paramedics, and he had the presence of mind to banter with them before they whisked him away to the hospital for surgery.

There were tangible moments of grace, even in the emergency room.  Whenever I would take Dad to see a doctor, he would find a way to mention to hospital personnel that his son, too, was a doctor–a PhD, a professor, a minister.  It’s the way that I knew he was proud of me somehow, even if he never said it directly.  But these insertions would come at seemingly random points in those conversations: “This is my son.  He’s a doctor, too.”  I learned to overcome my embarrassment, smile and nod.

This time, the ER nurse politely responded by asking at what church I ministered (I am not the pastor, though you might not know it from the way my father talked).  I told her, and she brightened with recognition.  “Oh, that’s why you look familiar,” she said.  Our church was her church, though she hadn’t attended regularly for some time.

It felt like a whisper from God: “I’m here.”  I needed it.  I wasn’t quite comfortable in the pseudo-parental role that my father’s decline had put me in.  The nurse’s words nudged me in God’s direction, at least for a time.

In retrospect, things happened quickly from there, even though surgery was delayed for several days.  Dad was confined to his bed, receiving morphine to ease the pain.  At first he was alert; but the longer he stayed in that bed, the more the line between sleep and wakefulness blurred.

The surgery was successful, and he was transferred to nursing care for rehab.  As a matter of routine procedure, I had to fill out an advance medical directive, checking boxes and signing my name on a neon-pink form.  This was not the first time I had done this, but this one seemed different, weightier.  “What do you want us to do if it looks like your dad is going to die?” the form seemed to say.  “Your call.  Sign here please.”

It wasn’t long before those hypothetical directives became reality.  Within a few days, Dad collapsed while in physical therapy.  He had developed a serious bowel obstruction, apparently as a complication from the anesthesia of the first surgery.  His colon had burst, and he was rushed to a nearby hospital for another emergency surgery.  Again, the surgery was successful, in the sense of repairing the immediate damage.  But it was more than his already frail, post-op 93-year-old body could handle.  He was put on life support.

On a Sunday morning, two weeks and a day after he had broken his hip, we called to check with the doctors, and told them we were planning to visit Dad in the afternoon, after church.  We were told that he might not make it that long.  After a flurry of back and forth phone calls and messages, the whole family was able to gather in the ICU at Dad’s bedside.  We said goodbye.  We prayed over him, and released him to God.  The doctors took him off life support, and a scant hour later, he breathed his last.

Dylan Thomas, pushing back against his father’s death, wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”   There was no rage when Dad died, no outcry at God against the injustice of death.  He died as quietly as he had lived, after nearly three decades of retirement, his days filled mostly with sleep, food, and television.  He asked little of life, and did not clutch at it greedily at the end.

Thomas’ poem leaves me with the disquieting feeling that I’ve missed something.  Friends have blessed the family with an outpouring of sympathy: cards, emails, even Facebook messages.  “We know how hard this must be.  We know what a loss you’ve suffered,” they often say.  I am grateful for the support; it is yet another whisper of God’s gracious presence.

But the truth of the matter is that I don’t feel much loss.   Part of it is that I’m thankful that Dad didn’t suffer the way we had feared, in a long, slow decline.  Even in the ICU, he was able to show a bit of humor while still lucid; his remaining hours were lived out in heavily medicated twilight.   And then there’s this: Dad and I didn’t have a close relationship in the way of a more popular American ideal.  He was quite definitely a man of his era and culture (Chinese): an excellent provider, but not one to expect or desire much intimacy from his children.  It was enough that my sister and I grew up successfully, without giving the family cause for shame.

And yet… I return to Thomas, and Thomas points me to the apostle Paul, and the truth that even when death happens under seemingly providential circumstances and artificially-induced (relative) painlessness, death is still the enemy.  We have the promise that it has been vanquished in the cross and resurrection, but for us it is still a grim reality that is only lightened by our future hope.

These bodies will betray us.  Mine betrays me even now–more so as the years pass.  We have friends and family who suffered greatly before the end, while others were more fortunate.  The former is not evidence of God’s neglect, nor the latter a guarantee of his favor.  We simply have different circumstances and different experiences.  I thank God that Dad’s passing was a gentle one, but do not expect that mine will be gentle in turn.

Whatever the differences in our experiences, we who are in Christ have but one hope, the hope of resurrection.  I suppose those who have suffered greater bodily indignity will look forward to it more than others.  And all of us will be tempted to put our hope in the alleviation of suffering by technical means.  Such temporary relief can indeed be received as a gift.  But it is not a promise.  Our hope can only be in what is promised, and promised by one who is faithful.

Our calling is to fix our minds and hearts on things above, on the exalted Christ and the glory that is our inheritance (Col 3:1-4).  With our tired and broken bodies, we lean into the future in which our imperishable bodies await (1 Cor 15:42-54).  The dying of the light is not the final word, because the Light of the World was crucified and raised by God to new and glorious life.

That is our inheritance.  That is our hope.

I am still learning to make it my consistent hope, and to have it be enough.