“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” (Psalm 116:15)
Three days ago marked the one year anniversary of my dad’s passing away due to cancer. Looking back over the past year I am overwhelmed with what a tumultous journey it has been since then. It seems so long ago and at the same time just like yesterday. So I’ve decided to write down my memories of that day as a tribute to my dad, the greatest man I’ve ever known.
Mom called us all over to the house late that morning. Dad had been acting funny all through the night and she knew something was off. More off than usual, I should say. Dad’s bout with cancer had been long and arduous, stretching three whole years, with more than one diagnosis telling him he had less time to live than he ended up taking. One of my most cherished memories of dad was sitting in a meeting once with some brothers and sisters who’d come to visit us from another church, and dad standing up toward the end of the meeting to testify how he had been enjoying the riches of Christ during his battle with cancer. “I often wonder why God has let me live this long,” he said (in light of how amazed the doctors were that he continued to do so well, given his suffering). Then with tears in his eyes he went on to say, “But now I know that it was so I could be here in this meeting and see what I saw today.” (Yes, it was that grand of a meeting!)
But this morning would be different. The main thing mom was concerned about was the strange remarks dad had been making all through the night, as if he were confused and didn’t know what was going on. As soon as we arrived at the house I knew exactly what she meant. Dad was different. He reminded me in some ways of my grandpa who had died some years previous of Alzheimers. His mind wasn’t all there.
After my brother and his wife arrived, mom decided to call the Hospice center from which dad had been receiving care. Together we sat and waited for their arrival, talking to dad, to each other, and playing with the kids. To be honest, it was a struggle for me. To see my own dad-whom I’d always known to be so strong-now lying on the couch helpless, weak, physically and mentally broken, was very hard. I’m not one to cry, but more than once I had to leave the room because I just couldn’t keep it together. I pleaded with God, but I knew this was it.
The hospice workers came and immediately agreed that dad should be transported to the center. We tried to explain to him what was happening but couldn’t really tell if he understood what we were saying. Later the doctors informed us that the confusion came as a result of his liver shutting down and certain chemicals no longer enabling his brain to function properly. In fact, the only person he really acknowledged among all of us there at the house was my oldest son Josh. Two times Josh came up to dad and gave him a kiss, to which dad responded by smiling and kissing him back. That was pretty special.
So they loaded dad onto the stretcher and into the ambulance. By the time we all arrived at the Hospice center he was no longer conscious. My wife and I decided it would be best for her to take the kids home, rather than have them there to see people crying and upset when they didn’t understand what was happening. So they said their goodbyes to Pawpaw, gave him a kiss and left.
At this point it was still just myself, my mom, and my brother and his wife. I left the room to give mom some time alone with dad, then spent some time alone with him myself after she was finished. I cried, I hugged him, I asked God one more time to take the cancer away, and then finally I just talked into his ear about how much I loved him, how I would miss him, and how thankful I was for everything he did for me in life and all that he was to me. At a few specific points it seemed to me like he responded to what I said with a small groan, just a little noise, which made me feel like he could hear what I was saying. Either way it was a remarkably special time for me.
Little by little other family members and friends began to show up and fill the room. We had probably another hour or more with dad as he grew progressively weaker. Amazingly enough, he never slipped into a coma, and there was never any evidence of a struggle. The nurses told us afterward that often in a case like this the patient’s lungs will fill with fluid and they will react violently in their final moments; this never happened with dad. It was the smoothest transition I could ever imagine a person making from this life to the next. It really was incredible. Not once in three years of terminal cancer-the rounds of chemo, the surgeries, the pain, and the failure of one organ after another-did I ever hear dad complain. Not once. When you asked him how he was doing his response was always, “I’m doing good. I feel good.”
The only time it seemed like dad was finally succumbing to the disease was the last couple weeks leading up to his passing. Sarah and I went over to my parents’ house to spring the news on them that we were expecting baby number 3. Dad was evidently exhausted, worn out from his battle, and told me, “I just don’t have any desire anymore.” But when we told them we were expecting, he cried and pumped his fist in victory just like he always had before. It was beautiful, and when I think about it, this is the last memory I have of dad prior to the day he passed away. Talk about going out on a note of victory.
So as we all sat waiting in the room it became more apparent that dad’s time was almost up. There was nothing else to do but go with him all the way. So we began to sing. We sang old hymns, and we sang “How Deep the Father’s Love For Us”-a song that always brought dad to tears in the meetings. It was wonderful. If I remember right we ended on “It is Well”, just as dad was about to go.
“When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say-
It is well, it is well with my soul!”
The nurse who had been monitoring dad’s heartbeat looked up with a gentle nod. Dad had gone. It was the most bittersweet moment of my life. For twenty-some years dad had taught me by his own life how to live. He taught me love, sacrifice, and service to others. Many a widow whose own needs they could not afford had been cared for by dad’s loving hand. Then for three years he taught me how to endure suffering and pain. I can only hope that when my turn comes I will be half the man in Christ that he was. And now, laying on this hospital bed surrounded by family and friends, dad taught me how to die. He lived well, he suffered well, and in the end he died well. He died in comfort; he died in assurance. And it was precious, not only in the sight of the Lord but in my sight as well.
So here’s to the greatest man I’ve ever known, a true servant if ever I laid eyes on one: Bob Lawson-my dad!