A little over a year ago – December 12, 2006 – my dad died. It was not a surprise; he entered the hospital in October and never really left the ICU. During that time – it was about 6-7 weeks – I visited the hospital every day and watched my dad slip away from us bit by bit. He was already deaf and nearly blind when he was admitted to the hospital, and had to use a walker because his diabetic neuropathy had caused him to lose the feeling in his feet. So his quality of life had not been good (in fact, it was nonexistent) for several years. In the hospital, his organs began to shut down one by one. When he was conscious, which was not very often, he was miserable. Finally we made the very difficult decision to stop life support, and stood by his bedside, holding his hands, while he passed slowly from this life into the next.
Although I missed him terribly (and still do), I also felt a sense of relief. After all, he hadn’t really been here for several years. I realized that my grief was for myself, not for him. I believe in life after death, eternity, and the goodness of God. My dad was a believer, like me. I believe that he is now heaven, whatever that may be… in the presence of God and free from the suffering that plagued his last years.
Less than a month after my dad died, my (ex)father-in-law passed away. Although I’ve been divorced from his son for over 10 years, I loved my in-laws almost as much as my own parents, and it was hard to lose Richard so soon after losing my own father. He had been sick for awhile, too, although he wasn’t as severely impaired as my dad was. I didn’t get to visit with him before he died, and that made me very sad. I would have liked to have heard a few of his jokes one more time. His death was not unexpected, although we all believed he would have more time than he did. Richard was also a believer, and I have often taken delight in the idea of him getting together with my dad up in heaven for a game of cards or Forty-Two.
That was in January of 2007. In February of 2007, the father of a very dear friend, who was also my friend and role model and a leader in my church, died very suddenly. He had shown no signs of illness at all, and was in excellent health, still working (part-time) in his late seventies. While at work, he felt a little sick and went to the bathroom, where he collapsed and died on the spot. His daughters are very dear friends of mine, and they were completely devastated. No warning, no time to say goodbye or make peace, no emotional preparation. Bam – your father’s gone. In some ways it was so much worse than the way my father went – at least for the family. But for Don, it was a lot better. He didn’t spend six weeks in the hospital, getting worse and worse and enduring tests and procedures. He was alive, and then he was dead. Maybe his heart attack hurt, but the pain was only brief. Sometimes I think it’s selfish to wish that we could have our loved ones longer than they’re meant to be here. Don didn’t suffer like my dad did, but his family suffered much more than our family did. Which is better? Is there a balance to death? If so, I can’t perceive it.
I’m writing all this and remembering all this because last week my boss and friend, Peggy Martin, died after a brief illness. She got pneumonia before Christmas and had to take some time off, but she got better and came back to work. However, she never really got well, and we all knew it. She would cough and cough in her office, and I know it made her so sore and tired. Finally, she went back to the doctor, who immediately admitted her to the hospital with a recurrance of pneumonia. Or at least that’s what he thought it was. While trying to treat her pneumonia, the doctors discovered that she had pulmonary fibrosis, which means that the lining of her lungs had been damaged by earlier bouts of pneumonia and scar tissue had developed in her lungs. For those of you who took biology a long time ago, here’s what that means. When you breathe, oxygen in the air goes into your lungs and the lungs pass the oxygen into your blood. At the same time, they filter out the carbon dioxide that your body has made and that the blood is carrying, and when you breathe out that CO2 goes into the atmosphere. The scar tissue in Peggy’s lungs made that process very difficult, if not impossible. So her blood was not getting the oxygen that her body needed. There is no cure for this condition, and the doctors didn’t give her family much hope for any recovery. Still, we were completely shocked that she died so soon. I thought that she probably wouldn’t be able to return to work, but I never believed that she would die right away. I know of other people who have had this diagnosis, and they lived for 2 or 3 more years, although they had to use oxygen tanks and breathing masks. I was so shocked and dismayed by Peggy’s sudden death, but I also know that she would not have been happy carrying around an oxygen tank. It would have made it difficult for her to do the things she loved, and would have created a barrier between her and her beloved granddaughters. I’m so sorry for her family – her sons, daughters-in-law, father, and grandchildren – but I don’t believe that I’m sorry for Peggy. She’s with the Lord now – dancing and singing and laughing and breathing deeply. She didn’t have to spend two or three difficult, painful, frustrating years in treatment and respiratory therapy. I know that to some people this will sound unfeeling or harsh, but I don’t mean it that way. I know that she would never have chosen to leave her family behind. But unless the entire family is involved in some catastrophic event, like a plane crash or car accident or tornado, then the fact is that some family members will always have to stay behind when other family members leave this life for the next. And it’s always going to be hard, no matter what your beliefs are. Saying goodbye is hard, especially when you know it’s going to be for a long time.
But Christians have an advantage. When we say goodbye, we know – without a doubt – that it’s not goodbye forever… it’s just for awhile. I wish I had had the opportunity to say to Peggy, not goodbye, but so long – see you later. Because I know when it’s my turn to go, she’ll be there in heaven as part of the welcoming committee. Hospitality was always one of Peggy’s special spiritual gifts.
Rest in Peace: Louis A. Daniel – Richard R. Richard – Don Coldwell – Peggy Martin … I miss you all.