Of all the godly and loving things Grandpa did for us, the best was taking such a long time to die.
Not that it was easy on any of us. The night before my grandpa’s death I woke up in the middle of the night, gripped with fear, disturbed by thoughts of my own unreadiness. Was my heart right with God? How could I know? The usual answers weren’t a comfort to me anymore. I would have to wrestle through it.
I thought about Grandpa. He had been a pastor. My pastor. He served the same rural church for over forty years. I grew up under his ministry and heard hundreds of his sermons. And though there were many things impressed upon me by him from the pulpit, by far the profoundest sermon I ever heard him preach had been over the last few days—from his deathbed.
He spoke no words. He may not even have been conscious. Only labored breath after labored breath before a gathered congregation of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in the little vaulted sunroom the church had given him and Grandma upon retirement.
Grandma attended Grandpa faithfully during this time (as she had done all their marriage), swabbing his cracked and withered lips every so often to try to keep him hydrated. She wouldn’t leave her beloved’s side. Not now. Not even to sleep.
Grandpa’s chest would rise. His chest would fall. Over, and over, and over again, for days on end. The waiting was agony. What was he hanging on for? When would it stop? Resentment started to crowd into the little sunroom.
Grandpa, the very image of health and virility, had surprised us some twenty years previous by undergoing emergency quadruple bypass surgery. Cholesterol? What was that? Fried food and ice cream were all that we knew. That, and plenty of hard work. We even burned our own trash.
But then, in the middle of helping us build a new house, Grandpa started forgetting things. Things he had done the day before. And so finally, after many pleas from his sons and against his better principles, doctors were consulted.
It was his heart.
After the surgery, Grandpa adopted a new way of life. No more late-night bowls of ice cream, and a vigorous two-mile walk every morning at six. Grandma joined him, and so did their kids and grandkids when we could pull ourselves out of bed. This new regimen kept Grandpa healthy and active for many years.
Then came the onset of Parkinson’s. Medicines helped him control the disease for a considerable time. But after being hospitalized with a broken hip, the disease was accelerated and he declined sharply, never to recover. After the doctors had done all that they could, Grandpa was sent home to die in peace.
When I heard that death was near, I made the trip back to see him. As difficult as I knew it would be, I wanted to be there, if I could, at the end. But then, the end dragged on, day after day. After every fall, Grandpa’s chest would somehow manage to rise again. As I struggled with all of this, the night before he died, I couldn’t help but think of how many of the comments in the room had veered to the cynical.
“He’s just so strong,” somebody said.
“It’s all that exercising he did.”
“I’m going to stop walking every morning if this is what it gets you!”
I laughed but I shouldn’t have. This attempt to lighten the mood belied our squeamishness under the ministry of Grandpa’s last sermon. With every excruciating minute Grandpa was forcing before our eyes realities we had spent our lives avoiding. Every hard-earned breath, every ounce of fight Grandpa was exhibiting, testified palpably of the truth written on our hearts, that “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.”
That’s what I was struggling with that night. Grandpa, it seemed to me, knew exactly what he was up to, and was determined for the sermon to go on as long as it could.
God reminded me of these words of the Apostle Paul: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” And like Paul, Grandpa seemed hard-pressed which to choose:
But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. (Philippians 1:22–24)
More necessary for our sake? What on earth could Grandpa do for us now?
He could continue to breathe, that’s what. And with every breath he could prolong our stay in the house of mourning.
Grandpa was never one to goad. Letting things go, both in the family and the church, was something a fault of his, I think. But here he was now, with every bold and perturbing breath, forcing us all to stare the most uncomfortable realities in the face and to take stock of our lives. If at any moment Grandpa might stand and give an account of himself to God, what must that mean for all of us?
Was I ready to face almighty God? I certainly didn’t feel ready. Far from it. So what was I to do? It was a long and uncomfortable night. But in the midst of the struggle God gave me peace. He allowed me to see with fresh eyes that, as it always had been for Grandpa, the precious blood of Jesus was more than sufficient for all my sin.
The next day, Grandpa’s final sermon came to an end. I think if we were being honest, we all would have admitted that we were more than a little relieved.
Still, you know what I actually thought at the time? I thought that I should start exercising, so as to die late and slow for the good of my loved ones’ souls. I felt it would be godly to aim to be as obnoxious as possible in death. Each dying breath Grandpa took was powerful good for my soul, and I was convinced God (and maybe also Grandpa) meant it to be. God help me, I want to be used like that when it’s my time to die.