The long walk down the hospital hallway was haunting. Dad was in the semi-private room way at the end of the wing. And he was dying. I arrived in the room ready for a nightmare and found it. As I studied the room I saw the curtain separating him from his neighbour and felt devastated that this was where dad was going to pass into the divine place often talked about but not completely known. I sat in the chair next to him, my stomach hitting the floor, finding an exhaustion not yet known to me while hearing the gurgle of saliva collecting in the back of dad’s throat. The death rattle people call it. Harsh, but humbly accurate. I was alone with him, traumatized by the rattle. It was my turn to hold vigil. I had to be there. We would not let dad pass alone. I was terrified that he would pass away on my watch. He didn’t.
My eighty-nine year old grandpa and my dad’s sister arrived the next day. Nothing prepared me for the stoic walk down the hallway with my grandpa. Eighty-nine years old, walking the long walk down the hallway, the hospital staff noticed and looked up with pity, sorrow, all acknowledging in their own way the nightmarish reality of a parent travelling to a son’s deathbed. His journey down the hallway different than mine, yet very similar in weight. It was heavy, a heaviness that we shared together by our steps, united by our love for the man lying in his bed.
A few days later, with his wife and sister at his side, dad passed away into a divine communion not completely understood. Grandpa and I travelled to the hospital, like we had done many times before, and walked down the same hallway, with the same heaviness. We walked into the same room. The rattle was gone. His body was still warm. There was only a peace larger than anything I have ever encountered before. It was an other ’worldly’ peace.
In the past ten years dad had been through seven major surgeries, two of which were to remove cancers which showed up independent of one another, and one invasive brain surgery. He had beaten all the odds. He bragged that he was getting hard to kill. But this time was different. A cancerous brain tumour that hemorrhaged was killing him. Quickly. The doctor attributed it to bad luck.
The practicalities following death were shocking. I quickly realized that planning a funeral sucks. Life seemed to move on in spite of the death as if it were mocking the life just lost. But together as family and friends, carrying the weight of death, we planned it.
My son started asking questions. He started asking even more after the funeral. Questions that were beautiful in their innocence, and shocking in depth. Where is grandpa? What is it like being dead? When can I see grandpa? Can I die so I can see grandpa? His words, the way he spoke them, were of great comfort to me, even though answers were lost to me.
Today, close to a month later, Dad’s death continues to fill me with anger and sorrow. Yet everywhere I turn in my sorrow I am met with my father’s legacy. A legacy saturated in relationship. He was a contemplative, mystic, Jesus radical who pursued with dignity the coming of God’s kingdom here on earth. In his final years he was an advocate for the spiritual care for the sick and dying.
Dad loved his wife. Dad was always proud of his kids, always encouraging, always there, always wanting to help. He dreamed dreams, heartbroken by his health taking many of his joys away, imperfect but ultimately made perfect by his persistent faith in the divine reconciler.
When the hearse doors closed carrying dad off into a seeming oblivion, we all wept and we wept well. We were family, we carried the heaviness together, bound by our love for one another, embraced by a divinity all knowing, all loving, all encompassing and resurrecting. That is right where we want to be.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4