As I write this, a storm front has swept across the valley where my parents live and my father is dying in the hospital bed hospice moved into their bedroom. Daddy has dealt with significant health issues for some time, but hearing two weeks and one day ago that his aortic valve wasn’t closing properly and it was just a matter of time was absolutely traumatic for my two sisters, my mother, and me.
We are losing our father.
It wasn’t until I left home for college and got out into the world that I really realized that not everybody had a dad like mine, a dad who was deeply invested in their lives, an ever-ready source of help and wisdom, and prayed for them all the time. If I needed to talk, he made time to listen.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m not claiming he is perfect. Dad can be short tempered when he is stressed out or over-tired (I inherited that!). Sometimes he might be a bit colloquial. He is definitely a true creature of habit, leading to one of his many nicknames, “Rut-man” (in this area, I pretty much married my father).
But Dad was always there for us. He attended ballet recitals, piano recitals, endless chorus/choir concerts from elementary school to college and beyond, dinner theater fundraisers, variety shows, and even softball games when my sister played in the church adult softball league (we were not big sports girls). He and mom traveled to Northern Virginia years ago to hear one of my first sermons.
Dad taught us to hit and field the softball and throw a tight football spiral (mine’s a little rusty but I can still sometimes impress my three boys). He took us camping and taught me how to trout fish in a freezing-cold Georgia mountain stream, even buying me my own pair of fishing waders when I was about ten years old. Like the great dad he is, he baited the hooks and took the fish off the line for me. I got to do the fun parts, like casting the line and eating Vienna Sausages (pronounced “Vi-eenie Ween-ies”) straight out of the can.
Dad welcomed in our friends and boyfriends, getting to know them and giving them his full attention as we all enjoyed Mom’s loving, home-cooked meals. Looking back, I realize that some of these friends needed to “borrow” my dad for a bit, receiving for awhile what I received daily: his loving hospitality, interest in others, and deep appreciation of life rooted in his faith. He and Mom made sure our friends could make themselves at home in our home.
Dad and Mom offered this same loving welcome to the men who became our husbands. In my Daddy, my husband received a second father, someone who listened to him, valued him deeply, and made him laugh with endless stories (many of which have wound up in our sermons or writing) and silliness. Our husbands are losing a father.
Dad’s hope for his grandchildren was that they would feel just as at home in my parents’ home as they did in their own–just as he had at his grandparents’ homes. And they have. Three girls and three boys, ranging from age four to sixteen, all feel as relaxed, safe, and loved here as they do at their own homes. Our children are losing their Grandad (also known as Dega, pronounced “Dee-Gah”).
As a pastor and chaplain, I have walked this valley with many, many others. I have sung with them, prayed with them, cried with them, and read with them the scriptures that bring us hope and comfort in darkest days. I know that the valley of the shadow of death is holy, hard ground.
But now I am here in this unfamiliar territory, trying to imagine my life without this man in it. And I find that I cannot face that. I cannot even begin to fathom that.
So I face just this day, just this hour. The hospice people say “soon.”
My sisters and my mother and I try to help him as best as we untrained folk can do. We adjust him in the bed, kiss and pat him, try to get him to take his meds, which has become much harder as he grows weaker and less responsive.
We laugh and sing and remember. We cry in little bursts. It seems too scary to start to really let the tears flow. My mother, who has loved this man for 52 years and been his wife for 50, explained, “I’m afraid if I really start crying, I will cry forever.”
The daughter I am knows just what she means. The pastor I am thinks it’s just fine if we cry as long as we need to. But I can’t yet. It’s too scary.
Through the years, I have heard almost every platitude there is and every bully-cheerleader (as my colleague calls them) nonsense that denies grief its true power. I do not need to be reminded that God is good and knows best; I do not want to hear that everything happens for a reason.
My faith is strong, vibrant, and growing here in the land of lament Psalms, where I cry–when I can–the tears of an exile. We are strangers in a strange land and cannot pretend differently.
If someone can’t be with our grief, that’s fine. Don’t be. But don’t try to minimize this loss for me. I am traumatized.
God has given me an amazing father, a Daddy in the truest sense of the word. We are losing him, hour by hour.
We are thankful for every good memory and every blessing in this valley, for every prayer offered for us, for every meal we’ve savored, for every moment shared together.
We are tired in body and spirit from these weeks of grief and goodbye with miles to go before we sleep, to borrow from Dad’s favorite poet, Robert Frost.
And we are traumatized by what is happening, make no mistake. All three are true at the same time: thankful, tired, and traumatized.
Our God is holding all of it, and all of us, close.
Rev. Alicia Davis Porterfield is a daughter, mother, wife, and minister. She midwives this blog and is currently serving as interim pastor for FBC Carolina Beach, NC, a fabulous part of the family of God.