September 26, 2020
Sorrowful triumph, and hopeful strife
Gainful death, and new-born life.
My dad’s nickname for me when I was a kid was Buglet (like a little bug, not a bugle). This fatherly nickname was the height of preadolescent embarrassment back then, and I spent a portion of my childhood fearing that my peers would discover this cute little pseudonym. At a certain point in my early adulthood, the thought finally dawned on me that this was not, in fact, a particularly mortifying nickname, but he and I kept up the joke. “Hey Buglet,” he’d say when he saw me, with a sideways glance to see if anyone else was listening, and I would pretend to be embarrassed. Normal, taken-for-granted, father-daughter interactions.
A couple weeks after Dad died, I started reading old emails from him. He and I didn’t email often, but there were still a fair few to go through. They covered mostly ordinary topics — a link to an article I might like, a question about upcoming travel plans, information about a book we had talked about. Sometimes he wrote to compliment my writing, to tell me he was proud. Often these emails were addressed to Elisa, but many others included the familiar old term of endearment. Hey Buglet, they would begin. However they began, and whatever they contained, they all ended the same: Love, Dad. I never took that for granted.
During the final forty days of my dad’s life, he lost his ability to speak. Words came out garbled and confused, their meaning increasingly uncertain. He tried and he tried, and we listened and we listened, but we all had to face the bitter reality that a man who had spent his life communicating clearly and intelligently and compassionately had become sadly incoherent. This was the hardest loss, until we lost him altogether on September 7th.
When his speech first got twisted, it was almost like a game, trying to figure out what he wanted to say. Once, a friend came to visit with him, and my mom and I were in the kitchen while they sat together in the living room. After a few minutes, he started calling to us (he could still say our names). We came in and asked him a million questions, trying to figure out what he wanted. “Do you want us to read the bible to you?” we asked. “Noooo,” he answered, in the tone of voice that always implied we were on the right track, even when we weren’t. “It’s better,” he said. “Better than the bible?!” we laughed. If you knew my dad, you know what a shocking statement that was, coming out of his mouth. We finally figured out that he wanted my mom to sit in the chair by him while his friend was there, and really, how sweet is it that having my mom near him was the best thing he could think of?
Then again, he did become a little funny and fussy about having things just so. If my mom sat near him once while a visitor was there, he wanted her there every time. If we put a cup of water on the table next to him a few times, he wanted it there every time. Sometimes, the thing he was asking for was simply something we’d missed (or hadn’t gotten to yet) in his usual routine. Maybe we hadn’t put his glasses on him, or taken them off. Maybe the remote for the television wasn’t on his table. Once, close to bedtime, he started asking for a screwdriver. “A screwdriver?!” we asked. “Yes,” he said. “You hold it in your hand,” (he held up his left hand, to demonstrate), “and you say, ‘Hello!'” We stared at each other. “You hold the screwdriver in your hand and say hello?” we asked. “Yeah,” he confirmed, although there was hesitation in his voice, like maybe he knew something wasn’t quite right in that description. We sat around him in confused silence for a minute, until it came to me. “Your toothbrush!” I practically shouted, and he nodded in relief while the rest of us burst out laughing at this adorably strange description.
For awhile, Dad could sing snippets of familiar songs. He would sometimes say thank you, or amen at the end of a prayer, or yes and no. Sometimes yes meant no, and vice versa, and sometimes he nodded his head yes while saying no. We started wondering if his responses to things were based more on social cues than actual understanding. If we all laughed, he laughed too, but we couldn’t tell whether he actually got the joke. When we smiled at him, he smiled back. One day we had a movie on, and one of the characters began to cry loud and long, and we looked over at Dad and he had tears streaming down his face.
Sometimes his increasing inability to speak made him angry. Sitting on the side of his bed one morning, he tried and tried to say something and then finally gave up. “Damn,” said this mild-mannered man, who had hardly spoken a harsh word in the whole of his adult, saved-by-Jesus life. “Damn.” A short while later, there were tears in his eyes as we sang It Is Well With My Soul with him. I can’t tell you how many times we traveled the paths between anger and joy, frustration and comfort, despair and hope during those forty days. Never have my worthiest and my most unworthy impulses co-existed so closely together. Never have we been given such glimpses into the deepest shadows and the highest beauty.
There was one afternoon when Dad seemed desperate to communicate something. He struggled and chattered and gestured with his hands and frowned and breathed heavily, and I tried so hard to understand what he was telling me. Partway through, it seemed like his focus shifted. I can’t be sure, but it seemed like maybe he was upset that this was how we would remember him, lying in a hospital bed and unable to say anything meaningful. I took his hands in mine and told him that he had given us a lifetime of words, that we knew his heart and his mind, that we knew how much he loved us, and that those were the things we would remember. I still don’t know if that’s what was bothering him, but he met my eyes while I spoke, and seemed a little more at ease afterwards.
One night during his final week, my mom put her head in his lap and cried. He couldn’t answer, but he gently stroked her hair with his one good hand. Two or three days before he died, I hugged him and told him I loved him. His response was slurred and quiet, but I’m pretty sure the final words I ever heard him say to me were ‘I love you.’
We had a sunrise service for Dad in our backyard, on one of the first cool mornings of the season. Fifty people were there, bright-eyed despite the early hour. My sister made Lep Kuchen (Lebkuchen), German cookies which I don’t have time to explain here but which are inextricably tied to memories of our dad. Dear friends of mine — friends who love my parents almost like their own — helped set up the night before, and brought coffee in the morning, and filmed the service and ran a sound booth. Two of those friends played guitar and piano and led us all in singing worship songs. Todd stood up and spoke about my dad. So did Anders, my sister’s husband. Both of them cried. Several of my dad’s closest friends came up and shared, and they cried too. Manly tears. Heart-wrenching tears. The sun rose that morning through a hazy sky, and my mom and dad’s pastor Tyson gave a short but beautiful message of hope. He read from Philippians 4, and compared Paul’s ministry from prison to Dad’s ministry from a hospital bed. He read from 2 Corinthians 4 and 5 — a favorite of Dad’s near the end — and Psalm 46:1-3, 10-11 — a favorite from his early days as a Christian. When Tyson prayed, he talked about the deadly fires that were causing the haze overhead, and how our hearts were breaking for the destruction of those fires even as we felt gratitude for the coolness and peace we were experiencing in its shadow that morning. He talked about that being a picture of what we experience at a funeral — peace, even in the shadow of grief.
Afterwards, some people left, and some lingered. As the numbers began to dwindle, Anders started making mimosas for those who remained. We sat around and talked. We laughed, sometimes hard. Pastor Tyson, talking to my mom, remarked on the surprising beauty of such a time — mourning the loss of my dad, while also laughing over Lep Kuchen and mimosas.
Augustine of Hippo said “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” I’m pretty confident Augustine was talking about our perpetual search for meaning and hope and purpose, which will be disappointed by every institution and promise of man but will be finally satisfied in a relationship with Jesus Christ. I think that’s the kind of rest Augustine is referring to. But “restless” is a word we often used about my dad during his final weeks, to describe the state of his mind and his body and probably even his heart. At a certain point it became clear that there would be no more rest for him in this world. There was too much pain for him, too much confusion and discomfort and distress. He was restless, but he’s found his rest now. He’s been welcomed home, by his much-loved Savior.
My dad, he fought a good fight. He loved others well and faithfully. He was smart, and humble. He cared deeply about truth, and treated others with compassion. He wrote two books (Creation Matters and Measuring Up), had an engineering degree and a Master’s of Divinity, worked in ministry, worked at Honeywell, and most recently, tutored math students at the local community college. He made beautiful things out of wood. He played the guitar. He liked to go to art festivals with my mom, and the Renaissance Festival with me. He liked to read science fiction and classics. He loved to talk about theology and the state of the church. He made scrambled eggs when we came over for breakfast. He and my mom loved having my older boys over to eat pizza and watch episodes of Star Trek. He could do the best Donald Duck voice you’ve ever heard. He loved Christmas. He loved all holidays. His mind could plumb the deepest depths when it came to philosophical matters, and yet he took genuine delight in simple things too. Early morning coffee in a ceramic mug. Pens that write really well. A pretty sunset in the desert. Time with my mom. Time with us.
I hate that my dad’s gone. I hate the way he was taken. I hate that this world is so full of brokenness and pain. But I am deeply grateful for a good God who draws us to Himself in the midst of brokenness and pain, who whispers in our hearts that things are not as they ought to be, that we can cry and rage and doubt, but in the end he is the answer to all of our questions. He has made us for Himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Him. That’s the truth my dad lived by, and I’m grateful. I’m grateful for everything. I’m grateful for 39 years with an amazing father, who called me Buglet and signed all his emails Love, Dad no matter how old I got. I’m grateful for a man whose influence compelled a crowd to show up at 6 o’clock on a Saturday morning, because they loved him. I’m grateful for God’s goodness in the midst of sorrow, for Lep Kuchen and mimosas, for memories in the past and memories in the making.
I’m grateful when I look back and, better still, I’m grateful when I look forward.
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”