Lessons from my Dad’s Death
by Jack Wald | September 28th, 2008

Ecclesiastes 9

I was planning to preach from I Samuel and the life of Saul this morning but then my father died when I was back in the US. When I preach, I preach from what I am learning and I discovered it would be impossible for me to come back and preach from I Samuel when my heart and mind are full of lessons I learned from my father’s death.

My dad was 87 years old. Just a month before I returned I received an email from one of my sisters informing me that my dad had been diagnosed with a form of pre-leukemia cancer. The prognosis was for one year but if he had chemotherapy he might live two years.

He started with the chemotherapy and it was reported that this had weakened him considerably. His treatment was a one week treatment and when I arrived in New Jersey on Monday the 8th, I was shocked at how he looked. Like me, or should I say that I am like him in this way, when he is in pain or discomfort, he withdraws into himself. Once in a while he would come out and ask something like, “So Jackson (this is what he called me), how are you?” Most of the time he was absorbed in his own discomfort.

Over the next four days he told me repeatedly that he was miserable. He was too weak to stand and take a shower so I bathed him in bed, touching him where I had never before touched him. He was a bit embarrassed so I told him that as a teenager when I was in bed with my back operations, I had also been bathed in bed. I dressed him and then put him in a chair where I shaved him, using hot towels to moisten his whiskers – which he loved. My dad always loved comfort. I washed and dried and folded his clothes. I cleaned up the bathroom where he had missed the toilet.

He was not hungry but my sister and brother-in-law who were living with him gave him high protein chocolate milkshakes. I had meetings during this time and came home on Wednesday with a delicious ham sandwich and was able to get him to eat three small bites. On Thursday I was able to get him to eat half a cup of pasta fagioli, an Italian soup he loved.

He went to the hospital on Friday morning to have a platelet transfusion to help thicken his blood and I went to the Philadelphia airport to pick up my brothers-in-law who were coming in for our annual men’s weekend on the New Jersey shore.

We decided that even though he was feeling terrible, he could feel terrible at his home or at the beach. My sister needed a break and maybe the sea air would help him. So we picked him up at the hospital and drove the three hours down to the shore.

He asked me on the way down where we were going and I told him we were heading to the dock in Cape May to have beer and oysters, something he talked about all the time. He loved being there.

Most of the time he was quiet.

When we arrived at the dock, he refused to get out of the car. I pulled at his legs but he resisted. Finally he told me, “Please Jackson, don’t make me get out of the car.”

So we ordered take out and headed over to the house we had rented.

When we arrived he cooperated in getting out of the car. My sister had sent a belt used to help older people walk. I pulled from the front and my nephew lifted from the back, taking most of his weight off his legs.

We had to go up four sets of steps and it became increasingly difficult for him. By the fourth set of steps he was becoming mostly dead weight and I told him, “Come on Dad, you have to help a bit.”

We got to the top and sat him down on a chair. My nephew and I went up and down to the car bringing the bags and food into the house. One of my brothers-in-law is an orthopedic surgeon and he stood by my dad. When I came up the last time he was telling my dad, “Come on Jack, take a breath.”

I felt for his pulse but could not find it. Earlier in the week when I had walked him from the garage of his house to his room he had also been exhausted and it had taken me a long time to feel his pulse.

But now I could not find it and looked up to my brother-in-law, “Gil, do you think he has died?” and he nodded.

We called 911, the number for the emergency squad. Within minutes they arrived. I told them I did not want him to be resuscitated, did not want them to bring him back to life, but by law they needed to make the effort.

Finally the paramedics came and were able to say that he had died. I went to one side of the room and prayed with my nephew and two brothers-in-law. I wept and then prayed.

The paramedics left and there we were with my father lying on the floor and now we had to wait for the funeral home director to come, to take away his body.

We toasted my dad with his favorite drink and then I said we should eat the food we had brought from the dock. It was a bit bizarre, eating delicious food with my dad lying on the floor just a couple feet away from me.

The funeral director arrived about an hour later and we helped him get my dad down the steps into the van.

Then began, actually they had already been going on, the phone calls to family. We made some quick decisions. This was Friday night and since he was going to be cremated, this would not be done until the middle of the next week. But having an urn with his ashes at the funeral was not necessary so we set up the funeral service to be on Sunday afternoon, just two days after his death. Family and friends made arrangements to fly or drive in. We ordered food for a meal. We decided that since my dad was not a religious man, we would have the funeral in his home rather than in a church or a funeral home.

I had talked with my dad earlier about what he would want in his funeral. He wanted it to be just a bit chaotic. He wanted an unusual funeral. There were specific things he wanted me to talk about in his life.

In 1999 I spent about 2,000 hours working with him on his oral history and knew his life history very well. This is a copy of the book we produced. The title is taken from his own words: When I Was Growing Up, I Had a Really Great Time. And on the bottom he said, I read somewhere that there are three things a man should do: build a house, have a son and write a book. I built a house. I’m damned sure I have a son. And now with this, I wrote a book. Often, over the past nine years, when I would call him from Morocco, he would tell me he was just reading his book. He loved his own stories and I love his stories and knew the chronology of his life at least as good as he did.

So at his service, with about 80 people who had come, I told stories of his life in three sections, ending each section with one of his jokes. Then others had the opportunity to come forward and share a story of their memory of my father. At the end I took the opportunity to speak for myself and I prayed for my father, entrusting him to the grace and mercy of God who loved him more than I could love him.

Then a Dixieland Jazz band: tuba, banjo, trumpet, clarinet and saxophone came in playing the Navy anthem, Anchors Away. As people began eating the delicious, abundant food we had ordered, they continued playing Dixieland Jazz tunes.

It was a funeral my father would have talked about for weeks and I am so grateful that I could be there.

Let me share with you four lessons I’ve learned from my father’s death.

First of all, people ask me, “How are you feeling?” wanting to know what my emotional reaction is to what has happened. My brother-in-law wrote a book (When Your Father Dies: How a Man Deals with the Loss of His Father by Dave Veerman and Bruce Barton) in which he interviewed men whose father had died and shared those insights.

He asked me the same question, “How are you feeling?” and my response is to say that I am feeling fine. Although I have to say that after I finished writing this sermon yesterday, I was watching a documentary of Fiddler on the Roof while folding the bulletins and when Tevye’s daughters were saying goodbye to him I surprised myself by weeping. Grief is deeper and more multi-layered than I suspect.

My father was facing a year or two of cancer and chemotherapy and I am glad he does not have to go through that. I watched Noreen Maxwell (a Scottish lady who died at the age of 94 in December 2005) go through a long, lingering death and do not wish that on anyone I care about.

Most times when a parent dies, it is the unresolved issues that come up to make the death an emotionally difficult time. Parents are all imperfect, even those of us here who are trying to raise perfect children, and because parents are imperfect we all grow up with things we wish had been different.

My father never was able to understand me. We were so different. In the thirteen years we were in business together, we went out for lunch almost every day that I was not away on sales calls or speaking at conferences. In those lunches my dad told his stories. He was a natural story teller and I never got tired of hearing them. I heard them so often that when we wrote his book, I reminded him of stories he could tell.

When I told one of my stories, he just did not get it. He never understood my commitment to Christ. He never understood what most has motivated me in my life. He never even understood my desire to know things that cannot be known.

I told him the story of how, as a ten year old, I went into the kitchen, opened the knife drawer and pulled out a sharp knife to slit my wrists. I was not depressed, only curious. I wanted to know what it was like to die. As I stood there with the knife in my hand, I realized that while I would discover what it was like to die, I would not be able to return with that knowledge. So I put the knife back in the drawer and walked away.

Unlike me, my dad was not at all curious about death or what happened after you die. I don’t think my father ever asked an existential question: Why am I here? What is the purpose of my life? Why was I born? What is the meaning of life?

I was born thinking those questions.

In writing my Dad’s book, I realized to my disappointment that he had a somewhat superficial view of life. He greatly enjoyed food and was skilled at solving problems, be they mechanical or personal. But he did not ask the larger questions in life.

I was disappointed in what I learned about my father when I wrote his book but I dealt with that and moved on.

The most difficult part of my coming over to Morocco was not being able to be with my dad for our regular lunches. I know he missed me and would regularly ask, “So how long are you going to be over there in Morocco?”

I loved my dad and missed our times together but in a sense, I said goodby to my dad when I left to come here. I understood my dad’s limitations and knew he would never be able to give me what I wanted from him and so dealt with that. This was not hanging over my head when he died and allowed me to deal with his death without this extra baggage.

If you are an adult and your parents are still alive, it is good to come to terms with what they can and cannot give you. This will allow you to enjoy your years with them and allow you to grieve and let go when they die.

A second lesson was how wonderful it felt for me to care for him in the days before he died.

I bathed him, cleaned up after him, shaved him, did his laundry, fed him. I am so glad I was there to be with him in the days before he died. I talked with my sister who has been caring for him for the last couple years and she talked about caring for him as a privilege. I agree with her. It was a privilege.

In February 2003, Ken Odduyo came to my door 10 PM on a Friday night. Ken was one of the Nigerians trying to make his way to Spain. He came regularly to the prayer meeting we hosted at our house. The last time he was there we had prayed for his health but that had been a month ago. It turns out he had TB as the last stage of AIDS and in one month he lost much of his body weight. He told me he was dying so I spent a night trying to get him into a hospital with no luck. He did not have legal papers and they would not take him.

About 2 in the morning I brought him to our home and fed him some broth with meatballs. He was too weak to eat and I had to feed him. The next morning I arranged to get him into a hospital through some connections I had. Two days later the hospital called me to take him to the TB clinic in Akari. It is a long story but they put his corpse in my car and I spent five hours with the police explaining why I had a corpse in my car.

My point in telling this story is that I often think of Ken and am so glad I was able to take care of him that night and feed him.

As I thought about the connection between my dad and Ken, what I came up with is that there is something special about helping people take the final journey.

I helped my daughters pack and go to college. I helped them move into their rooms, buying some basic tools, setting up their music system, putting the bed on cement blocks so there was storage room under the bed.

We can help people prepare for lots of moves from one location to another but there is no greater trip, no more permanent move than the one when we leave our physical body and depart for only God knows what.

It was a privilege for me to care for my dad in his last days.

I was curious if others felt this way and did some research on the web. I found a book written by a man who was in prison in Texas for eleven years and worked as a cook. He became a Christian while in prison and served the last meal for 300 prisoners who went to their death after eating what he prepared (not that the meal was what killed them). The book contains some of his recipes with names such as Posthumous Potato Salad, Post-mortem Potato Soup, and Old Sparky’s Genuine Convict Chilli (which boasts three degrees of spiciness – 5,000, 10,000 and 20,000 volts depending on the number of jalapeno peppers included).

How did he feel about serving this last meal?

Price says the first death-row meal he cooked was for murderer Laurence Buxton who requested filet mignon. He actually got a T-bone steak, but Price was touched when he sent word back saying how much he liked the meal. ‘I gave this guy a little bit of pleasure – just something to distract him for a brief moment before his execution. It’s a very humbling and emotional experience and I always prayed over each meal.’

If you had been at the crucifixion of Jesus, would you like to have been the person that lifted up to Jesus’s parched lips some wine?

Caring for those who are about to make their final journey is a great privilege. Take advantage of opportunities that come your way to do this.

Thirdly, a sense of my own mortality became very clear. When I called Annie, who was in Boston, to tell her about what I was doing for my father, bathing him, etc, her response was, “So how does it feel to be looking at your future?”

Some might say that was not loving, but it was exactly what I was thinking. What will I be like in thirty years (when I will be my dad’s age when he died)? Who will be caring for me?

When he died, I looked at my brothers-in-law and realized that the next funeral in the family is likely to be one of my sisters or their husbands or Annie or me. There may be someone else who dies first, but we are the most likely candidates.

When you are young, death is so far of it seems unthinkable. Two of my classmates died when I was in high school. One in a car accident and the other from a sledding accident. But although those deaths came as a shock, I was too young to see my own death as a future reality. When you are in high school or college, being 35 seems way off in the future. Death is too far off to consider.

But as we age, more and more people we know die. The death of a parent or another family member brings us back to the reality of life and death. We are born heading to the time of our death. Each movement of the clock brings us ever closer to our final journey.

I have long wanted one of the clocks that are set to when you are statistically supposed to die. It sits on the desk or desktop and counts backwards, second by second. If you beat the statistics, then you are in overtime.

If I live to my father’s age, then I have 10,680 days left to live.

Psalm 90 is attributed to Moses and as I read some verses from this psalm, remember the circumstance in which Moses was writing. There were forty years of wandering in the desert and at the end of those forty years, of all the adults who made the exodus from Egypt and then rebelled, only three survived those forty years: Moses, Joshua and Caleb. What this means is that there were a lot of funerals. Every day there were funerals. Every day there were less and less of the adults who had set out with Moses from Egypt. With this in mind, listen to what Moses wrote in Psalm 90.

3 You turn men back to dust,

saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.”

5 You sweep men away in the sleep of death;

they are like the new grass of the morning—

6 though in the morning it springs up new,

by evening it is dry and withered.

10 The length of our days is seventy years—

or eighty, if we have the strength;

yet their span is but trouble and sorrow,

for they quickly pass, and we fly away.

12 Teach us to number our days aright,

that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

David wrote Psalm 39 with these same sentiments

Show me, O Lord, my life’s end

and the number of my days;

let me know how fleeting is my life.

5 You have made my days a mere handbreadth;

the span of my years is as nothing before you.

Each man’s life is but a breath.

6 Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro:

He bustles about, but only in vain;

he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it.

7 “But now, Lord, what do I look for?

My hope is in you.

As my days diminish, it gives me incentive to make sure I am using them well. As my days diminish it is gratifying to see my hope is increasing.

The fourth lesson I learned is a sense of the meaninglessness of life, if this life is all there is.

In the house we had rented with my dad’s corpse lying on the floor, I had a very strong sense of the Ecclesiastes view of life and death.

Ecclesiastes 5:15

Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb,

and as he comes, so he departs.

He takes nothing from his labor

that he can carry in his hand.

My dad was alive one moment, not feeling very good and very tired, but the next moment he was a corpse lying on the floor. I took a picture of him with my cell phone that up to now noone but me has seen. It is not a pretty picture. Corpses only look good when they are fixed up by funeral directors and then they sometimes look better than they did when they were alive. But a corpse untouched is an ugly sight.

And I thought, what difference does it make that he had a wonderful life as a child? What difference does it make that he went to a top engineering school at MIT? What difference does it make that he was captain of his ship in the Navy in WWII? What difference does it make that he started his own business and made a success of it? What difference does it make that he was a Boy Scout leader or anything else he did? This is an Ecclesiastes view of life and death. (Ecclesiastes 9)

1–3 Well, I took all this in and thought it through, inside and out. Here’s what I understood: The good, the wise, and all that they do are in God’s hands—but, day by day, whether it’s love or hate they’re dealing with, they don’t know.

Anything’s possible. It’s one fate for everybody—righteous and wicked, good people, bad people, the nice and the nasty, worshipers and non-worshipers, committed and uncommitted. I find this outrageous—the worst thing about living on this earth—that everyone’s lumped together in one fate. Is it any wonder that so many people are obsessed with evil? Is it any wonder that people go crazy right and left? Life leads to death. That’s it.

It was so clear to me as I looked at my dad’s corpse on the floor that only Jesus can make sense of death. Without Christ death is a tragic comedy, a farce. Without Christ death is a corpse lying on the floor while we eat our oysters, crab cakes and shrimp.

When I die, I don’t want a service of just telling stories and jokes because although my body is dead my soul will live on. I want a service of celebration because death for a Christian is not the end but the beginning. As C. S. Lewis said in the last of his Chronicles of Narnia when the characters came into Aslan’s kingdom:

And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

Your days are winding down to the moment when you and the ones you love will take the final journey.

Deal with the limitations of your parents so you can enjoy being with them now and so you will be able to grieve and let them go when they die.

View it as a privilege if you ever have the opportunity to care for someone who is dying.

As your days slip away, let the hope that is in you of eternal life with Jesus grow.

Turn to Jesus, hold on to Jesus who alone makes sense of the meaninglessness of this world.

My dad once told me, “I believe in God. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God. If I took it any more seriously I’d have to read my Bible every day and I don’t want to do that.”

I’m confident that now my father wishes he had taken it more seriously.

Live well. Live for Jesus so you will be prepared for your final journey.

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I Peter 1

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.