The Shadow of Death

 

Dad underwent two major surgeries in the space of three weeks. The first was double by-pass, open-heart surgery. Then, three weeks, later, he had his gall bladder removed. I wasn't able to get a flight into Houston until late evening following his second surgery, and it was well past ten o'clock when I finally made it to the hospital. Dad acknowledged my presence, but that was about all he could manage before succumbing to the pain medication. Around midnight, I left Mother to her bedside vigil and drove "home" to the house where I grew up.

 

Opening the trunk to get my bag, I saw Dad’s toolbox and his coveralls – symbols of his strength and resourcefulness. There wasn't anything he couldn't fix. In the living room I encountered his favorite chair, a Lazy-boy recliner covered in a wool plaid. Now, it became a haunting symbol of his sickness. How many nights had he spent there, unable to sleep, alone with the darkness and his pain?

 

A deep sadness settled over me. I tried to reason it away. I was tired and lonely, the house was empty. My sadness wasn't fooled. I was face to face with my own mortality and Dad’s.

I was tired but I couldn't sleep, so I wandered through the empty house listening to the stillness. How different from my childhood when four kids created a constant commotion. How different from other trips home, holidays and vacations when the house rang with laughter and love, and grandchildren were everywhere underfoot. I sat in Dad's favorite chair and cried. I couldn't help it.

 

Yet even in my sadness, I found much to be thankful for. Dad and I had shared on a deeper level than we had known before. We didn't want a single affirming word unshared, any feeling of love unexpressed. I remembered holding his hand the day before his open-heart surgery and the closeness we felt. The way he blinked to hold back his tears when he told me all the things he had wanted to do for Mother and hadn't got to, at least not yet: some improvements on the house and a trip to Hawaii. After awhile, he had fallen asleep, and I was left with my thoughts and the realization of how much I loved that special man I call Dad. I realized anew that even life's tribulations could be a source of spiritual richness if a person has faith, and a lifetime of shared experiences to draw upon.

 

Alone in the house that night, I had a choice. I could either entertain my fears or my memories. I choose the latter. The first thing that came to mind was something I had been told rather than anything of which I had a conscious memory. My dad has always been an avid reader. When I was just a baby, I would sit in his lap, perfectly still, for hours while he read. Now, sitting in his favorite chair with a stack of books at my elbow, I thought of that and realized that my own love for books might very well have been born right there in his arms. Even today I think of a good book as a trusted friend, and I associate them with happiness and love. Is it not possible that those warm feelings are a carry-over of the love and security I found in his arms?

Then my mind leaped ahead twenty years. Brenda and I were serving as the pastors of a small church in Florence, Colorado.

 

It was nearly 1,100 miles from Houston, Texas, yet, without fail, Dad and Mom made a flying trip to see us every major holiday. Usually, they had to drive all night, both coming and returning home. They came for Leah’s first Christmas. She was only seven months old, and Brenda dressed her in striped pajamas and a tiny Santa's cap. My family arrived about 2:00 A.M. on Christmas morning. Immediately we exchanged gifts, after lots of kisses and hugs, that is. Later that day we went ice-skating on a pond swept clean of snow by bitterly cold winds, high in the Rockies. Then we took turns riding a toboggan down the mountainside at speeds no one in their right mind would ever attempt. Miraculously, no one was hurt, and we returned to the house for Christmas leftovers and childhood memories, relived with a relish known only to happy families.

Back again my mind went to my childhood. This time to the night I was called to preach. I was barely thirteen-years-old and when I told dad what had happened, he gave me just enough affirmation to let me know how proud he was, but not nearly enough to make me think more highly of myself than I should have. Then he gave me some of the wisest counsel I've ever received. He told me to keep that call a secret between the two of us. When I started preaching, or began preparation for the ministry, that would be time enough to make it public.

 

I accepted his counsel that night without question, because I trusted him. Only now, twenty-five years later, do I realize the wisdom in what he said. If my call had turned out to be nothing but an emotional experience and I had already announced it, I might have felt obligated to continue, just to save face.

Through Junior High I always played football and basketball. I wasn't really much of an athlete. Second string was the best I could manage. Still, Dad stopped at practice every night on his way home from work. Our football games were played on Saturday mornings and he never missed a single one. In fact, he saw to it that the whole family was in attendance even though the chances were pretty good I wouldn't get in the game. Never once did he make me feel like I wasn't living up to his expectations. With him, I was always All-State!

 

This reliving of the past went on all night as I tossed fitfully, unable to sleep, with only God and my memories to keep me company. Along about dawn, I realized that even if Dad died, I couldn't be grief-stricken, not really. The thirty-eight years we had shared had enough love and laughter for two or three lifetimes. No one could ever take Dad’s place. I understood that better than ever now, but I would always have the memories and the God he made more real to me than life.

That morning I decided to celebrate life rather than grieve, and when I did I realized that the Lord of Life was present and celebrating with me! Dad recovered from his surgeries and is still alive today, sixteen years later. Still, I know better now how to prepare for that inevitable moment we must all face. When Dad finally goes the way of all flesh, I am not going to grieve over what might have been, rather I am going to thank God for what we had. I'm going to celebrate life! Dad would want it that way. That doesn't mean I won't grieve, or that I won't miss him. It just means he can't ever be totally gone as long as I have the memories of the life he so freely shared with me, and all of his family. This, too, is an act of worship.

 

BOOKS BY RICHARD EXLEY
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