I will start at the end.
Tuesday, February 24, 11:50 am. A member of the medical team walked into room 412 and saw our faces and our posture circled around the bed and my dad’s now lifeless body already beginning to turn that unmistakable waxy color, and he said in absolute astonishment, “What happened?!?”
Yes, a tiny corner of my brain registered humor. This good man and good doctor was asking us what happened. I have come to realize how appropriate his question was.
What happened? The Lord called Dad home. Quickly!
What happened? The cancer was hidden in his body and then it announced itself and then it did its work all in six days. We received a name for the cancer about an hour after Dad died.
What happened? We fear cancer all the time, from hangnails to headaches. But for some reason when it actually was cancer, we weren’t prepared and were thinking stroke or pneumonia – both curable or work-withable. So on February 18 we were shocked with a preliminary honest assessment that this was not going to end the way we would prefer, and that the pathology would either be bad or very bad. We love our family doctor and were so thankful for his directness.
What happened? While the docs looked for causes and plans, we at the bedside, not at all medically trained, watched the person, our husband and dad, go from responsive, to unable to suck on a straw, to comatose, to shallow breathing, and knew exactly what we were seeing. We were shocked at the speed of it. But we were not shocked when he died. We saw it coming that morning and were bathed in the grace that is promised for those moments. The medical answer to what happened was almost irrelevent.
What happened? The nurses of the 4th floor became our heroes! I can’t put into words what they were to us. To all nurses everywhere I want to say THANK YOU!!! To the fourth floor nurses of Cullman Regional Medical Center – Tammy, Jutta, Christie, Vickie, and many others whose names escape me but whose actions do not: you are a credit to your calling. I hope the hospital administrator sees these words and knows the caliber of these men and women who do unspeakable tasks with compassion for the patient and gentleness for the bewildered family.
What happened? Though it was short, we hit a new routine, a new normal, swinging by Starbucks and settling in to room 412 for a morning, afternoon, or evening of doing things that a day earlier we would have said, “Well, I can’t do that!” Feed my dad? Apply chapstick? Watch a coughing fit that racked his body head to toe? Lather, shave, and Bay Rum aftershave him so he might feel a little more normal? And there was laughter in the room, too! As Andrew shaved him, from the depths of wherever Dad was, he automatically stretched his lips out to avoid nicks. One time I asked him if he was cold and he said, “N. O.!”
What happened? Love happened. The words and visits of dear friends far and near provided the oil of mercy and kindness on us. And the food! Oh, my, the food.
What happened? We watched our Dad walk across the Jordan River and it happened over the course of a few days. I remember standing beside him thinking, “I am looking at someone with one foot in glory. Wow!” His eyes didn’t see us; they saw the far country, and we got a little of the spill-over.
What happened? My sister’s husband of one month entered fully into this with us and has been the quiet helper at every place of need. Here’s to all dark Frenchmen!
What happened? My brother moved gracefully into place as the one we look to. A torch was passed.
What happened? The next generation left behind jobs and schools and drove through rain, snow, sleet, and hail to gather in a remote Alabama town to honor this man whose history they might not have known much about but who held 40 people together.
What happened? Our family bonds grew a little tighter. Ours is a blended family and sometimes we can wander far and wide and never see each other. But we have shared a death together now and that makes us blood related.
What happened? My mother became a matriarch and has been a rock of peace and grace. She loved my dad for 40 years and is an example to six kids, six spouses, and a little army of grands and great grands of what it is to say “I do” and then live it out even when “I do” means dying a little bit.
What happened? Oh, we had a snowstorm and 10 phones all chimed continually with different rings that we came to know signalling calls from travelling kids and from friends wondering about the changed funeral arrangements and closed florists. And we just smiled because . . .
What happened was that our God kept His promise beyond anything we could have imagined: “I will be with you always.”
Especially for six days in room 412.