Epilogue

“Telling Daddy Good-bye”

 

In November 2006, my eighty-three-year-old father fell and broke his hip. Subsequently, he underwent surgery and several weeks of rehabilitation before being released to our care. My sister turned the office in her home into a sick room, and all of us children chipped in to purchase a queen size adjustable bed so Mother could continue to sleep with Daddy.

This was just the latest in a series of health crises that had beset my father. For twenty-two years he had battled heart disease— undergoing two open-heart surgeries—and fibrosis of the lungs. With a tenacity born of love and desperation, my mother and my sister took Dad from one doctor to another, always hoping for a magical cure. While the doctors were sympathetic, there wasn’t really anything they could do except try to make Dad as comfortable as possible. In time he seemed to make peace with his situation, finding joy in reading and playing table games with Mother, but it wasn’t much of a way to live. On more than one occasion he told me that if it wasn’t for leaving Mom, he would welcome death. He wasn’t being morbid; he was simply tired of suffering and homesick for heaven.

By the New Year it had become apparent that Dad was dying, although neither my sister nor my mother could bring themselves to admit it. The thought of losing him was simply more than they could bear. In late January, the doctors confirmed what we could no longer deny, telling us that our father had only two to four weeks to live. When my sister broke the news to Dad, a small smile touched his lips, and he said, “Well, they’ve finally given me some good news.”

Soon all the children, grandchildren, and even the great- grandchildren gathered at my sister’s home in Texas, and on Thursday afternoon, February 8, 2007, my father departed this world. His homegoing was peaceful, although the weeks preceding it were filled with considerable suffering. He bore it all with remarkable grace—the pain and choking, the inability to eat and the humiliation of not being able to care for himself. As the end drew near, he became ever more affectionate, repeatedly kissing and hugging those of us who cared for him.

 

 

The last Sunday before his death we all crowded around his bed for worship. For the most part Dad seemed oblivious, but when it came time to receive Communion, he opened his eyes and reached for the cup and the bread. Kneeling beside his bed, I took his hand and began to quote John 14:2–3. As I said the familiar words, “In my Father’s house are many mansions ...” he moved his lips, soundlessly mouthing the words along with me. As we sang his favorite hymns, he seemed to draw strength from them. Not strength to live but the strength to pass from this life to the next without fear.

Two days later he fell into a coma from which he awakened only momentarily at the very end. Mother was lying on the bed beside him, as was my sister. My brothers were at his bedside: Bob was standing at the head of the bed, softly stroking Daddy’s hair, while Don was standing beside him, holding Daddy’s hand. Standing between them and just a little behind, I had a clear view of my father’s face. For days he had lain with his head back and his mouth wide open as he labored to breathe, but as he drew his last breath, he closed his mouth and opened his eyes. Focusing on something only he could see, Daddy smiled and tried to sit up, and then he was gone.

Thinking about it now, I am sure Jesus came for Dad just as He promised He would: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:3 KJV). There was no death angel in that room, just the Lord of life coming to call my father to his eternal reward.

The images of the last days I spent with my father have
been forever etched upon my heart. One of the many things I will never forget is the memory of the love and devotion heaped upon him by his family and friends. It was a rare and special thing, and I can only conclude that the man or woman who goes into eternity loved like that is rich indeed.

The funeral service was deeply moving, filled with memories of the past and hope for the future. No one captured the hope of eternal life more powerfully than my brother Don. Having spent nearly all of his adult life serving as a missionary in Latin America, he understands what it means to be a pilgrim and a stranger in a foreign land. When it was his turn to speak, he said, “For the past thirty years I have been required to carry official documents identifying me as a ‘resident alien.’ Although I drink mate like an Argentine, eat asado with the best of them, and speak the language as if it were my mother tongue, I am still a ‘resident alien,’and I always will be. I love Argentina and its people, but I will never be an Argentine. I am an American, and America will always be my home.”

 

Pausing to collect himself he continued, “When we went to the mission field in 1976, we were truly cut off from our families and our homeland. There was no satellite television or Internet, and it took weeks to arrange an international telephone call, not to mention the prohibitive expense. After four long years we flew home for our first furlough. When we landed at Miami International Airport, I spotted a U.S. Postal Service drop box and begin to weep. I know that must seem silly to you, but it symbolized home to me, and I was overcome with emotion. In the ensuing years we have passed through customs scores of times upon our return to the United States, still each time we do, Melba eagerly waits for the immigration official to stamp her passport and then look up and say, ‘Welcome home.’”

Struggling to control his emotions, he said, “When Daddy took his last breath, I knew I had lost an irretrievable part of myself. The man who gave me life was gone, and it felt like I had a hole in my heart. On another level, I rejoiced because I knew Daddy was more alive than he had ever been, and even as I wept with grief, I rejoiced for him. With the eye of faith I saw Daddy getting his passport stamped at heaven’s gate. I could almost hear Jesus say, ‘Welcome home, Dick Exley! Welcome home.’”

 

It gives me great joy to recall Don’s words, and more especially
to know that Dad is no longer a “resident alien” in this world of pain, but a full-fledged citizen of heaven and a member of that great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1). Of course, this does not eliminate the pain of our loss, but it does put it into perspective. Even as we grieve, we are comforted with the knowledge that one day we will be reunited never to part.

Good-bye, Daddy. I will always love you. In life you taught me how to live, and in death you have shown me how to die with dignity. Your fingerprints are all over my life, and I will always be in your debt.

 

 

 

 

 

BOOKS BY RICHARD EXLEY
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