My father died on May 27, 1979. He was 57. I'm 57 now. What follows is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Fifty-Seven: A Memoir of Death & Life, which will be published this fall.
Debra got home, took one look at me, and said, “What’s wrong?” as I took her in my arms and cried. “Daddy had a heart attack,” I said. “We need to go to Thomaston.”
We arrived at the Upson County Hospital late in the afternoon. Daddy was in the Intensive Care Unit. We walked into his room to find him awake but on a ventilator; the tube down his throat made it impossible for him to talk. Someone had given him a pad and some paper; when he saw me his eyes grew large and he quickly scribbled, “How are you?” He underlined “you.”
My father was lying there with his massive heart attack and he was worried about my tonsillectomy. I thought he was crazy. I’m a father now, too. I’m crazy like that now, too.
I told him I was fine. The truth was that my throat was throbbing and my heart was breaking, but the first thing didn’t matter and the second was too much to deal with for either him or me. Besides, my throat would heal. I wasn’t so sure about my heart, though, given that it had not yet recovered from the damage done to it by my mother’s death four years earlier.
Preacher Bill arrived and prayed with us. He prayed that God would work a miracle in Champ’s (my father’s given name was Champ) life and heal him. He expressed that thought in several different ways but it was the only thing he prayed for. Later, upon reflection, I would develop some sympathy for Preacher Bill’s position. My father was both a good friend to him and a pillar of stability in a church that had so much instability at its core, it often teetered on collapse, and every once in a while just went ahead and fell apart. Still, as Preacher Bill prayed, I grew more and more frustrated because I had already made up my mind that my father was not going to recover. I wanted and needed someone to pray that we—that I—would have the strength to make it through what we were facing and that we would know the comfort of the Lord in our present pain and in our coming grief.
That was the moment I decided that when I had the responsibility and privilege of praying in such situations I would always ask God to help the family deal with whatever they had to deal with. I do ask God to heal but I always also ask God to help both the sick person and that person’s family and friends to live in and through the experience with trust and hope. After all, even those people who experience an astounding recovery, and whose families are so gratefulfor God’s healing power in that instance, must deal with their ever-present mortality. Every crisis, no matter how it’s resolved, is preparation and practice for the next crisis.
Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus and his sisters Mary and Martha were glad. Sometime later, though, Lazarus died again. So far as I know he’s still in the ground.
Besides, I remembered other things that I had heard Preacher Bill say. I remembered what he had said at Mama’s funeral about how she had prayed that God would let her see me grow up before she died. I remembered how I had realized in that moment that my decision to leave home to go to college a year early might have freed her up to go ahead and die. I couldn’t understand why Preacher Bill didn’t perceive what was going on. I was scheduled to leave for seminary in August—Daddy was supposed to drive the moving truck—and now, here it was May, and there lay my father. It was three months before I was going to move five hundred miles away to pursue another degree and to pursue the life that lay before me, and my father had been stricken with an out of nowhere major heart attack.
For all I knew, Daddy might have asked God to let him live until I finished college, got married, and headed off to seminary.
It would have been nice if he had asked God to let him hang around long enough to drive the truck.
I thought Preacher Bill should have sufficient spiritual insight to perceive that what was happening here was God’s doing—with considerable and maddening collusion and cooperation by my parents—and that the best I could do was to get out of the way, let it be, slough through my grief, and suppress my anger at my parents for deserting me and at God for making it happen.
Preacher Bill had said something else at Mama’s funeral that I had not forgotten. He pointed out—he made a really big deal out of it, actually—that she had died at exactly noon on Sunday or, as he put it, “just as we were singing the invitation hymn here at Midway.” (Baptist churches typically sing a hymn at the end of each service during which folks can walk the aisle to accept the Lord or make some other commitment.) I don’t remember him claiming that the Lord had orchestrated events so that Mama’s going to Jesus would correlate with the time in the worship service when we summoned people to come to him, but if he didn’t draw that straight line, I did. Anyone with eyes to see should have realized that God had carefully orchestrated the spectacle of my mother’s death even to the point of having her die at straight up noon on Sunday.
If you don’t think God is capable of orchestrating a spectacle, you should go read your Bible, especially the account of the exodus from Egypt and that of the last week of Jesus’ life.
I tried to shake such thoughts from my head as we waited at the hospital for updates on Daddy’s condition. Thursday night passed with no news other than that he was in serious but stable condition. On Friday the doctor told us that the damage to Daddy’s heart was too severe to do anything about. He said he probably wouldn’t survive, but if he did, he’d be an invalid. I began to pray that my father would live, but quickly my prayer became that, if the choice was between dying and being an invalid, the Lord would do what I knew Daddy would want and let him die.
On Saturday—Saturday again—the doctor told us that Daddy’s lungs had begun to fill with fluid and that it was just a matter of time. I figured it would be about twenty-four hours. Debra and I drove back to Macon that day so she could take a final exam that her somewhat less than compassionate Drama teacher thought was more important than her being with the family of her dying father-in-law. Maybe he thought we were being overly dramatic. I thought he was being a jerk.
Sunday morning came and our family members and friends had gathered at the hospital. Debra and I went downstairs to get something to eat and drink from some vending machines. We were standing there trying to decide what to get when I looked at my watch; it was 11:55. “We’d better get back upstairs,” I said.
I didn’t hear the voice of the Lord this time. I had learned. I just knew.
Daddy died right after we got back. It was straight up noon. Again.
Some well-meaning people judged the symmetry between the day and time of my mother’s and father’s deaths to be beautiful. I found it appalling and frightening.
I was suddenly very weary of God’s showing off. The choreography imposed on my life may have been impressive, but it had become numbingly predictable.
I needed a dance with different steps.
I needed crises without a predictable ending.
I needed the people I loved to quit dying on me.
It was at that moment that my mindset shifted from Psalm 8 to Job’s parody of it. The Psalmist had affirmed,
When I look up at your skies,
at what your fingers made—
the moon and the stars
that you set firmly in place—
what are human beings
that you think about them;
what are human beings
that you pay attention to them?
You’ve made them only slightly less than divine,
crowning them with glory and grandeur. (Psalm 8:3-5)
Indeed, who were we that God paid any attention to us? Who was I that God paid any mind to me? But up to this point in my life I had been grateful for God’s attention. God’s hand had seemed relatively light, even with the death of my mother, and I had trusted that I had, like Noah, found favor with God. When I thought of God, I thought of God’s blessings. Now it was dawning on me that, while Noah found favor with God, his reward was getting to see lots of death and destruction.
So now I began to relate more to Job’s take on the Psalmist’s sentiments:
What are human beings, that you exalt them,
that you take note of them,
visit them each morning,
test them every moment?
Why not look away from me;
let me alone until I swallow my spit? (Job 7:17-19)
I had considered God’s watchful eye to be a blessing; I now considered it to be a curse. I had been thankful for God’s intervention in my life; I now regarded it as a threat. I had thought that faithfulness to God’s perceived call on my life would lead to life; I now suspected that it led only to death, not so much for me as for the people that I loved.
Math was never my strong suit. Subconsciously I put 2 and 2 together and came up with 5, which was bad math but powerful psychology. Debra was now all I had left; the thought of losing her was unbearably painful, so painful that actually thinking about it was beyond my capabilities, so I came up with other things to worry about. Somewhere deep inside me my controlling formula went something like this: my plans to go to college = my mother’s death + my plans to go to seminary = my father’s death = other plans that led to change might = something happening to my wife.
That didn’t stop me, though; nothing was going to stop me. I had not yet discovered the excellent Memphis band Big Star (their songs “Thirteen” and “I’m in Love with a Girl” are sublime), but their song “The Ballad of El Goodo” could have been the soundtrack for my life at that point: “There ain’t no one going to turn me ‘round. No there ain’t no one going to turn me ‘round.”
So I kept moving forward while things churned inside me. In August of 1979, three months after Daddy died and a few hours after Debra graduated from Mercer University, we headed off to Louisville so I could be there in time to begin classes in the fall semester. She got a job and I started studying ...
© 2016 Michael L. Ruffin