There are some messages we never want to receive. In our time they often come as phone calls; for earlier generations it would have been a telegram, a letter in a hasty scrawl, an out-of-breath messenger bearing the summons, Come as soon as you can, there isn’t much time. On the last day of November, my mother made one of those dreaded phone calls. To me.
My father’s liver, which for years had stumbled on in gradual decline, had fallen into an exhausted slump, spent. Other organs, already overtaxed from attempting to shoulder more than their share, wavered under the suddenly redoubled load. No internal klaxons went off to announce the change; unaware, Dad drove himself to a routine appointment, expecting to drive himself home again and get on with things. Whoever attended him saw the whites of his eyes were jaundiced, with his skin following suit, and he was admitted first to the hospital, then the ICU. That evening he and my mother were still thinking he would soon be on his feet, that this was just another early rumble along the fault line that would eventually—always some other day in the hazy future—bring about the big one. Morning brought another doctor and more details: the outcome of the next few days could not be predicted, but this was end-stage liver failure. Tears came then, and the phone call.
It had been a morning like any other for their son in Tennessee, but with a few tense words the ground shifted underfoot and the horizon swung round. I needed to go to them, and soon wasn’t soon enough. I rushed home and packed, but the earliest flight wouldn’t leave until late afternoon, and there was no way to make packing last so long. Hours remained and there was nothing left to do but wait and think and fear.
My fear was not just that Dad would die, but that he would die and stay dead. My father had been raised in a Catholic home, but had always been an atheist, as far as I could tell. He bowed the knee to no god, and there was no one in heaven he asked for salvation, or anything else. Dad had been a chemical engineer. He knew the little bits, the atoms and molecules that everything was made of, including himself, and that was enough for him. He’d heard the gospel from the rest of us any number of times, and was content to leave it in our care.
Now I sat with a full suitcase and a doubt-crowded heart. My father had ignored grace at every opportunity, and opportunities looked to be running dry. This might be my last chance to speak to him; what could I say that he hadn’t already heard? My mother had been tugging him toward the feet of Christ for more than forty years. My sister’s one wish, as she was slowly dying of cancer ten years ago, was that Dad would take her Lord for his own. Those pleas had not sufficed; what then could I say? Years of prayer produced no visible result. Yet I took to myself some measure of responsibility for compelling my father to accept Christ before it was too late, all the while asking God to give me the words and the time to speak them.
Dad was steeped in applied sciences; he had worked with compounds and formulas for thirty years. He knew the precision that was built into the fabric of the world, that it ran on organized principles. He was schooled in the exactitude and purposeful design it takes to reconfigure the raw material of that world—every element and atom accounted for, nothing haphazard in the lab or the processing plant. Surely an engineer could not fail to recognize the work of an Engineer? Dad was also an outdoorsman. He’d seen the proclamation of sunrise from a duck blind, and even more sunrise painted into the rainbow trout. The artistry of the feathers in the fanned tail of a grouse had not gone unnoticed. Had he been able to convince himself these things were accidental? How would I convince him otherwise? I jetted through the early dark of approaching winter, and felt in my hollows that he would be gone already when I arrived. That there would be no convincing to be done, that death would be a door locked behind him and keyless.
My mother met me at the airport to bring me to my father. I don’t know how long she’d planned to hold onto the news, but she only lasted a minute, and then it rushed out of her. Before I had even left home, while I sat wondering why decades of prayers had left God unmoved, God was answering those prayers. My father had asked Christ’s forgiveness and become one of His. Mom described how her former pastor had arrived by Dad’s bedside at just the right moment. She had been asking my father once more to put his faith in the work of Christ, and Dad was telling her that he was all right, that he had been “good enough” over his life. The old pastor, a fellow outdoorsman like Dad, was someone my father respected. In his measured, sturdy speech he told Dad that no one was “good enough,” himself least of all. “I’ve failed every day I’ve been given,” he said, “and every day stand in need of Christ’s love and forgiveness.”
“I need that,” my father finally said, and in a long-awaited prayer, he asked for it.
My mother and I laughed out our tears as the leaden weight I’d borne across four states dissolved into stunned praise. Why is it so surprising when God gives what we ask of Him?
Still thrilling with inward delight, I rode the hospital elevator to the ICU floor. I reminded myself not to be surprised by Dad’s physical appearance. As he’s aged, my mental image of my father has remained a hale and upright forty years old, a man in his prime. The picture stayed in place whenever I wasn’t with him, though he resembled it less and less when I was.
This time, though, he was an old man newly born. I approached the bedrail and he clasped my hand. His smile held the warmth his hand no longer could, as he told me “I’m going to be in Heaven with you and Mum and Morgan.” I don’t remember what words I gave him in return, only the feeling I meant them to give shape to. “I guess I’ve been a little stubborn,” he said ruefully.
The next few days glowed with a peace that couldn’t be overshadowed by medical facts and the details of a body’s failure. Pieces of information without context, often seeming contradictory, dribbled out of nurses and doctors. Numbers improved, medications were reduced, and my mother and I began making long-term plans for Dad to remain with us. Yet those hopeful dreams evaporated when new complications arose. Through the leap and plunge of expectations though, there ran a surety that all was and would be well. We reminisced, we talked of the future, and we enjoyed the moments as they were given. We loved and were loved. We said all those things we needed to say.
And still there are things I wish I had said. I wish I had told my earthly father more about my heavenly one. Dad was, in his old age, a spiritual infant. He simply accepted when his new Lord allowed his afflictions to continue and increase, and did not labor to understand why. Bedridden and bound up by half a dozen lengths of tube routed into various veins, he could not get comfortable, and rest eluded him. Feeding himself was difficult; managing other bodily needs unaided was nearly impossible. He had been emotionally at peace with dying from the hour he received Christ. Now, in pain and draped in the only-half-there hospital gown, fed by family and cleaned up by nurses, life by degrees became wearisome. Though every additional day with us was a gift, it came with a lot of fine print.
I wish now I had told Dad that this Jesus, into whose hands he has entrusted himself, understands what he’s going through. Though God, He knows what it is to inhabit a body that’s collapsing around him like a long-abandoned shed. He too walked through the shadow of death. From the beginning to the end, Jesus tasted of suffering and indignity. The One who raised fiery mountains from the sea and wove the aurora borealis had to be cleaned up, put in a diaper, and fed—holy humiliation and a sacred outrage, wrapped in homespun cloths and laid in a feed trough.
And the feed trough is appropriate; it is exactly right. Here in the huddled, too-vulnerable form of a newborn human is the only thing that can sustain true life, the Life that outlasts and knows not decay and death. Here in the wooden bin is the only provender we were designed to thrive on—not rationed meagerly, but in abundance astonishing. C.S. Lewis said “If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally.” The manger overflowed with a bounty that spilled across the world from beginning to end, and seven days before his earthen vessel gave way and reverted to dust, my father learned to partake.
A day after he came back to the house, Dad went on to his true home. His blood pressure bottomed out; breathing became a chore, then a fight. Yet again God answered prayer, another spilling out of grace in an extravagant week of gifts. As my mother asked God to ease his passage, Dad’s rattled breathing softened and his agitation stilled. His last minutes in the world where things still run down and stop were quiet and easy, and then he was alive in truth.
This is the beginning of my father’s story, such as I know it. The ending that is a beginning. Perhaps it’s more that I’ve fallen briefly out of his story than that he’s fallen out of mine. I will not walk again with him the wooded path behind the house, where the pines shed rusty needles and push out new green growth. When I catch him up, or when this frayed and tired earth is melted down and re-cast in beauty imperishable, on that road I will meet and embrace him. Then I will be the infant, and he will have grown indeed, so close to the One who is the source of every good thing we ever knew or imagined, bringing it forth from endless vaults of Himself. My dad and my sister—the wonders they must be immersed in already.
There may be days when the sky sags low and grey, when the chill wind feels ugly and the dried stalks of grass are coarse underfoot, and these hopes are hard to remember. I suspect one re-loses a parent many times over one’s life, as the absence gapes afresh both in little moments and momentous events. Certainly we all know families who have suffered tragedy amidst the holidays—those we ache for as we celebrate, those for whom the time of year becomes a raw wound as the pervasive joy of others scours their own loss.
Friends, I am not one of these.
For me this Christmas, more than any yet, brims with hope, with new life, with long-awaited beginnings, with resounding joy. I am thankful for those last sweet days to see Dad off, to witness the firstfruits of the Spirit already working within him, to meet the new creation he will be growing into forever. He has gone further up and farther in to the mystery we reach for during this season. Celebrate with me, the Lord is come.
Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”