My dad died at age 64. Up until he took his last breath, he was strong and vibrant and funny and loving. And he still had dark brown hair with only a tinge of silver.
I was so proud of him for keeping a stiff upper lip, that last year of his life, as he battled pulmonary fibrosis and was bed-bound. How he found the strength to stay positive, I’ll never know – other than, of course, he was a man of faith. When you have faith about where you are going, death is not THAT bad of a deal.
Even so, it’s tough to lose a parent that young. You feel cheated of the wisdom, guidance and encouragement that only a parent can give. I’d known he was going to die for quite a while. But still, when it finally happened, I was devastated.
Twenty years later, I still fall into pity parties from time to time, missing him. It happened last week, when I whined – privately, in prayer – about how unfair it was that Dad wouldn’t be here next month to see his granddaughter Eden graduate from college. He had been a third child; I was his third child; she is my third child. We Germans are all about order and symmetry. This happy girl, nicknamed “Beamer,” is exactly like her “Funny Grandpa.” Sadly, she doesn’t remember him now.
So, God, if You really are good, all the time, how is THAT fair and good? Another family milestone passes without Dad here to share it, Lord. What’s up with THAT?
And then, with God’s typical perfect timing, a friend called. And as I listened to her tell about the trials and tribulations of caring for her elderly father, perspective struck me like a two-by-four.
Her dad is 84 – about the age my father would be by now.
He is mostly bed-bound – but NOT taking it patiently, as Dad did.
He has a form of dementia that has changed his personality so that he is downright unpleasant to be around. That’s the polar opposite of Dad, whose sickroom was usually full of people because he was so much fun to be with. Talk about clarity: just a day or two before he died, Dad gave me a long and crystal-clear explanation of the bond market and the differences between junior bonds and senior bonds (once a CPA, always a CPA).
In stark contrast, my friend’s elderly father can’t even get to the bathroom by himself.
This man’s poor, dear wife, also elderly, has to get up with him six or seven times a night to help him to the bathroom, since he refuses to wear a diaper or use a bedside commode. She is exhausted. Her own health is fragile now. Her other daughter comes in and takes a few “shifts” as often as she can, so that the older woman can sleep through the night.
They’ve rigged up a mat at bedside so that when the man’s feet hit the mat, an alarm goes off in the spare bedroom, and she wakes up and takes him. It’s a crummy way to live.
Now the daughter is severely depressed and on medication, because her own husband has had to move to a city two hours away for his job, and she can’t join him because of her elder-care responsibilities. Last year, the family put the dad in a residential care facility to try to relieve the situation. But he deteriorated so badly that they brought him back home. There isn’t much money for respite care. So they feel totally stuck in a bad situation.
Now here’s the killer:
My friend is the OTHER daughter. She lives here in Omaha. But her family lives far away. It’s quite a contrast. I could pitch in to help with Dad almost daily, because he lived 10 minutes away. I didn’t even realize what a blessing that was. See, her elderly parents and depressed sister live halfway around the world, in her country of origin — Japan.
It’s horribly frustrating and worrisome. She has begged her parents to move to the States so that she can care for them to take the load off her sister. But they won’t. And who can blame them? They don’t want to leave their lifelong home, would have trouble getting a green card, and so forth.
As a result, she does the only thing she can: she flies there once or twice a year for a week or two, takes the night shift, and observes her father morphing into an unkind, white-haired, clueless old geezer who’s just the shell of the man he used to be. And then for the rest of the year, she listens to her mother and sister “vent” on the phone – can’t even give them a hug — and they all cry and feel helpless.
I told her a very American term for what she is going through:
I also told her that God is good ALL the time. If she can just find the strength to hang in there, eventually, she’s going to see the good in this current situation. It’s there. I believe that. What feels bad and overwhelming will miraculously fade away in her memory banks. It happened with my dad’s death, and everything else bad that’s ever happened in my life.
I added them to my prayer list, and ask you to do the same.
But then the light broke over my pea brain:
THAT COULD BE ME! AND WHAT A BLESSING THAT IT ISN’T!
Because my dad died young, I’ll never have to see him shuffle, never have to see his shame as his body breaks down, never have to stand by while he’s wracked by surgery after surgery, never have to join with my family in taking away his car keys and seeing him so sad and frustrated that he cries.
Instead, I’ll remember him having a blast driving his boat, making the grandkids giggle, pounding a golf ball farther than men half his age, and whistling while he worked on fix-it projects.
I remember a dad who was a smart, kind, funny, generous, athletic, hard-working fellow – as if Rodney Dangerfield had become a CPA and a family man – and not as a sick, weak, suffering, unhappy old man.
No, he wasn’t at his grandkids’ soccer games, graduations and weddings. No, I can’t “chin” with him and ask his advice on any topic under the sun. Yes, there’s an empty chair at holiday gatherings and things just aren’t the same.
But I’ll always remember my dad with that vibrant, dark brown hair. He died the way he lived — young in spirit, though his body gave out far too soon.
Guess that’s God’s timing. Guess He does know better. Guess some of us are slow learners. Guess some things take the perspective of 20 or 30 years to let you see that what you thought totally sucked . . . maybe only sort of partially did.
Hope that’s an encouragement for anybody going through a tough situation right now – a divorce, unemployment, a health crisis, a wayward child – or the declining health of a beloved, elderly parent.
While it might not seem like it right now, and might take many years for you to understand, I know one thing for doggone sure:
God is good. ALL the time.
It’s an old, old truth . . . but the hope it gives you is brand new every day.
By Susan Darst Williams • www.LifeWithTheElderberries.com • © 2019