Saturday, April 7, 2012

Matters of Life and Death

Today is April 6, 2012 which makes tomorrow April 7, 2012. And tomorrow is a pretty significant day, or at least it marks one: the day my dad died, ten years ago.

The day is full. I'll tell you why.

- My sister is currently in the hospital being induced with her baby girl three weeks early due to possible complications from a liver problem and preeclampsia.

- Today is my best friend's due date (another baby girl) and she was experiencing contractions all morning.

- We're in the midst of Holy Week. Thom is off to a Good Friday service as I write and Sunday morning we will celebrate Christ's resurrection.

- Another friend has just arrived from Ohio. We will be having a birthday party for her two-year-old daughter (two weeks younger than Beatrix) tomorrow morning. Her husband flies out for training on Easter morning; he is deploying to Iraq at the end of the month.

- An old family friend is currently in hospice care after battling cancer for many years.

- I turned 32 one week ago.

And in the midst of all of this, I'm trying to find space to contemplate, to celebrate Dad's life, to reflect on my process of grief, and to appreciate the hope of heaven.

It feels like too much and I'm tempted to just go watch TV instead of think, but I know that I need to focus and live through this. So here goes.


The last time I saw my dad was my 22nd birthday. It was Easter Sunday. I had flown home for Easter break at the urging of my mom who did not think that Dad had long to live. I don't remember anything about those few days at home except for the morning I left. We went to the sunrise service, my dad in a wheelchair and towing an oxygen tank.

At home, before leaving for the airport, I went into our family room alone to say goodbye to Dad. I sat perched on the armrest of the recliner, in a side embrace with him. He spoke words to me, which seared into my brain. I have them in a journal still, but paraphrased, he told me he loved me, that I needed to finish school, that I needed to help my mom make decisions, and that, most importantly, I needed to keep my faith in God.

It was a lonely flight back to school. I sat next to the window and let the tears fall silently, a deep hollowness - sorrow - settled in. At O'Hare, my roommate picked me up at the curb. She was distracted and stressed by driving in unfamiliar Chicago traffic; she greeted me coldly. I remember leaning away from her in the car, staring out the window, my insides just screaming out the injustices: It's my birthday! My dad is dying! I will never see him again!

He died late at night the following Sunday. I was awoken in the middle of the night in my Wheaton college apartment, two thousand miles away from home, with a phone call. I remember leaping out of bed, knowing it was bad news. My roommates didn't rouse, maybe because I got up so quickly it didn't wake them or maybe because they knew, as I did, it was for me.

On the line was my brother; he told me the news. I don't remember talking much. I just remember the feeling afterward, the sickest, darkest, heaviest feeling I have ever had. It could only be told with sobs and groans. I curled up on the spare bed in our study and cried. My roommates came to me then and held me while I wailed and rocked and writhed.

I relive that moment often and it never fails to bring tears.

The following day was Monday and I had to get excused from classes and arrange for extensions on my work. My roommate came with me to one English class to explain to a professor why I wouldn't be there; I couldn't bring myself to walk into the classroom and talk to her. There in the hallway of Armerding Hall, I ran into another close friend. I saw her, rushed to her, clung to her neck, and sobbed while students in an hurry filled the hall around us.

Very few people at school knew my dad had cancer. I was involved in a ministry on campus when we found out the diagnosis (early summer of '00). The people involved in the ministry knew and had been praying. My roommates knew, a few individual close friends knew, a few professors knew, and that's all. Lots of individual, even close, friends did not know. How do you tell people who don't know that your dad has been dying that your dad died? I couldn't. So I didn't talk. I spent a good amount of time playing Nintendo 64 games just to keep my mind occupied.

I flew back home within a few days to attend the burial and memorial services. My arrival at the Portland airport that time was one of the most beautiful-sad memories. All my siblings were waiting for me as I walked out of Concourse E. One by one, I fell into their arms grateful to be with them all. Their hugs said, "You're home, we understand, we feel the same way as you." Those were honest hugs.

Some relatives were in town for the funeral. I remember one of my uncles was sitting in the living room when I came downstairs one morning. It was late morning, maybe ten, and he made some annoying comment about me sleeping all day or something like that. I wanted to kill him. Another time, another uncle stopped me to tell me about the stages of grief. I knew he meant well, but I couldn't possibly understand what he was talking about, I couldn't even understand my own actions.

At the church for the funeral, my family all waited in the back rooms, like actors offstage, to enter together in a procession when the service started. I gripped my sister Amy's hand as we went down the aisle. I remember feeling pretty exhausted, with no more energy to cry. Many kind and joyful testimonies were shared that night about my dad's life. I was and am so proud of him.

I had to go back to school to finish out the year. The day Dad died was exactly five weeks before my graduation. There were lots of gushing goodbyes and rekindling camaraderie among classmates at the time. I remember vividly running into one of the girls from my ministry on the sidewalk one day. She told me with great enthusiasm that she was engaged. I could not respond to her cheerfulness with the truth about what was going on with me. Dad's death was only a few days old, and I acted like everything was fine.

Another time, I tried to spit it out awkwardly. A boy who had had a crush on me - he had asked me out earlier in the year; I refused, but we had remained friends, stopped me in the hall one day. He asked me casually how I was as anyone might in normal conversation. I said that I wasn't doing well actually, that my dad had died. He laughed in response. I guess he thought I was joking. He was one who should've known my dad was sick, but he didn't remember at least not in that moment. That encounter certainly didn't encourage me to be more forthcoming with my emotions.

A friend who had already graduated, but was still living nearby, went for a walk with me to the park one day. I had seen her regularly over the two years since I knew my dad had cancer, but I never mentioned it. For whatever reason, it never seemed like the right time to say it or I didn't know how. At the end of the walk, my friend asked me if my family was coming to graduation. I said that my mom and my brother were coming and she asked, "Why not your dad?" I shifted uncomfortably on my feet and replied that he had died. She was shocked and mystified. I was miserable and embarrassed. My hasty, stammering explanation could not recover any trust; I felt false and shallow.

Eventually, one of my friends caught on; I was not seeking any help and was receiving as much. She informed the chaplain's office of Dad's death. The college chaplain called me directly to ask how I was doing. I remember it feeling very strange to speak to someone whom I had been watching on stage three days a week for the last four years, now, at the end, because my dad was dead. I don't think I was very honest or else I didn't know what I was feeling so I just gave the expected answers.

Later, they inserted my name into the prayer requests in front of the entire school. There had been students' parents with cancer in the regular prayer list for months if not years, but my dad had never been one of them. One girl in particular, another senior, had been in a couple of my classes. Her dad also had cancer, but she was loud and outgoing. In both classes, she shared all about it and asked for prayer. I remember sitting in those classes, watching her with bitterness and awe. There was part of me that wanted to jump up and say, "Me too! My dad is dying too! Pray for me!", but that would have meant attention and vulnerability. Silence always won.

When my time came, it was (I believe) the very last chapel service of the year. All of us seniors were sitting on the stage. They prayed for me, calling my name out for everyone to hear, and I felt my friends nearby reach out and place their hands on me. Afterward, descending from the bleachers, a couple of my ministry friends (one was the girl who got engaged) approached me with searching, sad eyes. Why hadn't I told them? I don't know why, because I couldn't.


None of this really speaks about Dad, about who he was or what he meant to me. No, to do that I'd have to write volumes. These are just the glimpses I have, the montage on repeat that plays in my head this time of year, little painful flashes and memories of a time I cannot go back and change. All of this was so formative for me, and yet I think over them now with a definite outsider's eye.

To be honest, I can't even quite remember the girl who didn't know how to talk about her pain; I've had ten whole years to do that. I know this pain so well, it is with me every day. It dulls as life moves ahead, but comes back sharply whenever I give it just a minute to sink in, like when I consider raising my girls without them ever knowing their Grandpa except in pictures. Just one minute and my insides start screaming the injustices all over again: My dad is dead! I will never see him again!

However, I would be remiss to leave it at that. I was attempting to give up complaining for Lent this year, and in doing so have realized just how prevalent complaining is in my life, so it would be easy for me to just leave off with a big whiny cry for pity. But it's Easter weekend, so how can I think on my dad's death and his separation from me, without glorying in the victory over death that we have through Jesus Christ?! The pain that I feel here on earth is just one part of the story, the present part, sure, but not the most significant part.

I will instead scream out this wonderful injustice: Christ has died for me! I will live with him!


  1. You know the strange thing is how we've had these similar experiences but never really shared them with each other. Not just this but other things too. Even having an uncle (on my dad's side) who I wanted to smack to the moon due to his (I felt) insensitive comments when everything was going down.

    When my dad was sick I didn't tell my best friend at school or my friends online because I just wanted to be able to go to one or two places where things could be "normal." At church everyone was always asking me questions, at home things were nuts, and I needed places where I could almost escape. Which is why my best friend didn't even know my dad died until almost a year later, and it didn't come from me!

    1. Molly, this was so interesting to hear from you and actually helps me make sense of why I acted that way. You are right, it helped to have some place or relationship seem "normal".

  2. So glad you wrote this, painful as it is to both write and to read. My day of commemoration got a bit side-tracked - or maybe not: we think there was something profound about being in a hospital, in immense pain on that day, being at the point of despair by Saturday evening...and the new life that came so early that Easter Sunday morning.

    But it's still all rolling around in my head & will be awhile 'til I get it out in words.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Emily.

  4. What Amy said.

    I still have some pretty clear memories of when you came home that week before he died, but I don't think I'd ever heard about how you had to handle the news, alone, so far from home. And realizing the pain of knowing that that was likely the last time you were ever going to see him. Being right here with him, I guess it was almost more of a shock to have it happen overnight, when I had just seen him the day before. We all knew it was coming eventually: next month, or even next week...but surely not today, not tomorrow. There is still such a big hole, especially as the family has grown by spouses and children.

    1. You're right, I don't think we even really know each other's stories. I know I haven't really considered what it was like to be here at the time (or in France) although I've picked up pieces over the years. I'd be interested in hearing though...if you'd ever care to write it out.