January 26, 2013 – Surely death is hallowed ground, and the transition from this life to eternity a sacred doorway. I drove them today, four grandchildren in an unpacked car over highways and state roads. I drove them under a blue sky, the radio playing quiet tunes until we could no longer pick up the signal of the Christian radio station in Tallahassee. I drove them so they could hold their grandpa’s hand one last time, so they could say goodbye because we knew now that death was close.
None of us had been this close to death before. Do you take little children to the bedside of their dying forebear? Do you allow them to see how death twists the face, skews a man’s mouth and makes his breathing labored and talk impossible? Do you make their final memory a picture of what he suffered in his final hours?
We would. “I think you should come,” my husband, the oldest son, had said, “and Mom wants the grandchildren here. Just be prepared for how he’ll look, and you probably shouldn’t stay long.” I did my best to prepare us all. Three hours southeast, we drove and talked about what it might be like once we were there. This degradation had happened so quickly, so much more quickly than we’d expected, even though we’d known. We’d been warned the cancer would eventually take him. But we are never fully prepared for death. And we fight it best we can, with everything we’ve got until at last it becomes obvious that we have lost and it has won, which is the moment to which we’d come.
One by one, they filed into the hushed house: the oldest granddaughter, the second-born, the sole grandson and the six-year-old baby girl. And one by one, each took in the scene without words. Their grandpa’s recliner sat empty in the corner. The couch and coffee table had been moved to make room for a hospital bed. And on the bed is where we saw the dying. There we saw the strong made weak and the lively diminished, the spirit the same but the body changed.
The kids had known he was sick this past year, but he was still very much Grandpa. Maybe he sat longer in his recliner, didn’t play so much with them, didn’t always make it to the table to eat, but he was still Grandpa. He’d played Outburst with us just four weeks prior, chuckling at the end of a day spent opening Christmas presents by the tree in the living room. The cancer was still an invisible disease we’d warned the kids to expect. But to them, in spite of his daily pain, he’d seemed pretty much the same.
But today was different. Today they met cancer face to face. And it became to them a real word, a peril that was tangible, palpable.
On the hospital bed in the middle of the living room, eyes open but not seeing, he lay still, mouth agape and striving for air out of reach. Without the oxygen tank behind him force-feeding air, his chest would barely have risen. The ceiling fan circled silently above him. And silently the tears began to come. And I watched the faces of my children. I watched as whatever innocence may have yet shielded them from suffering began to wane, watched it ebb in this sacred room of dying, room where our beloved will pass from life to death and death to life.
“I love you, Grandpa,” said the eight-year-old boy, barely audible. We took turns sitting with him. We strained to comprehend him when he asked for something, but we couldn’t figure out what he wanted. Now, hours later, as I write this I realize it was a Coke he was wanting. A Coke! When we’d have jumped to be able to give him anything, we’d failed him for lack of understanding. Oh how we fumble around this dying! We all come near death awkwardly, I imagine. Not one of us comes to this elegantly.
Even so, we gathered around his bed, and the kids and I said good-bye. I squeezed his hand, told him I loved him, and he mumbled, “I love you too.” I kissed his head, and reluctantly yet determinedly we left him, the finality of the farewell like a door slamming on a raw wound. We left by the door to the garage, leaving him to the sacred act of passing, within arm’s reach of his wife of 48 years and his grown children. The moments from here to final breath would be theirs, a very difficult, painful, tender and intimate time that each would grieve and cherish alike.
Certainly the day of death is better than the day of birth. I attest its hallowed nature, its mix of earthy suffering and sadness, tender love and in the case of my father-in-law, transcendent hope. To die trusting in the arm of God, in the presence of those who love you, in the presence of a wife who is actively caring for you, of children who honor and pray over you surely weighs down time, swells it with the holiness of God himself. Because it is sacred, this door from here to eternity is sufferable.
Precious in the sight of God is the death of his saints. And who are his saints? The perfect? No, the blameless. Who are his saints, the sinless? No, the forgiven. They are the beloved, loved of God, purchased by blood and saved by grace. This is gift.
Rest until that Day, beloved saint, father of my husband, grandfather of my children. Your work here is almost done, your momentary suffering almost complete. Your children sing your praises. Your grandchildren and good name flourish. And one day we will join you. We will see our Savior face to face without peril, without grief and with fullness of joy.
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Richard Houghton, Jr. died early in the morning of January 28, 2013 from stage-four melanoma. He was 70 years old and is missed. We grieve, though not as those who have no hope.