Monday, December 18, 2006

Blue and White Christmas: Remembering a Life That Mattered (Part III)

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.” ~ I Thessalonians 4:13,14 (NASB)

Continued from last week

I am still in awe over the timing of my father-in-law’s death, and I think we’ll all be eternally grateful to God for giving us the opportunity to say our good-byes just one week before he passed away. In life, Dad wasn’t the emotional type, and he wasn’t much for hugging. But before he died, we were all able to hug him and hold his hand and tell him everything we wanted to say while we still had the chance.

Since I arrived early, I took that time to tell Dad how much I loved him and appreciated everything he had done for our family over the years. “You’ve got a heart of gold, Dad,” I said, with tears in my eyes. “You’ve been the best father-in-law anyone could ever have. You’ve been so good to us . . . too good to us.” Then I thanked him for raising such a wonderful son. “My life has been so happy every day because of him. He’s been an amazing husband and father. Thank you.” Dad just smiled. Then we started talking about other things and I asked him how old his father was when he passed away. “Forty-eight,” Dad replied. “That’s so young – that’s how old I am.” Dad paused, and then he looked at me and said, “Take care of yourself.” My voice cracking, I said, “I will Dad. I’ll do my best.” I told him that ever since my cancer diagnosis, I don’t take a single day of life for granted.

That night after supper Keen went into his father’s room and knelt by his bedside. He held his hand, kissed him, told him he loved him, reminisced about all the fun times they had as a family, and thanked him for the great life he had given them. Then Keen asked his father: “What do you think, Dad?” Dad returned the question. “I don’t know. What do you think?” he asked. “Dad, I think you’re dying,” Keen replied. Then Keen asked him if he was afraid, and Dad shook his head and quietly answered, “No.”

Later on, I joined Keen by his father’s bedside. “Hi, Sweety,” Dad said. Keen moved over so I could kneel down by him. I held Dad’s hand and told him that we loved him. “That’s right, Dad,” Keen said. “We all love you here, and they’ll all love you there – your parents and grandparents and Uncle Keen and Jack – they’re all going to be there to greet you. Everything’s going to be all right.”

“We have come from somewhere and we are going somewhere. The Great Architect of the Universe never built a staircase that leads to nowhere.”
~ Robert Millian

The next day we accompanied Dad to his scheduled doctor’s appointment for more x-rays. They would only allow one family member to go back with him, so we all agreed that Josh would be the best person. After an hour had passed, we started becoming more and more anxious in the waiting room. Finally Josh emerged with the announcement that the doctor wanted to meet with the entire family.

When the doctor entered the conference room, the look on his face spoke volumes. There was no easy way for him to deliver such devastating news; the cancer that was removed in May had spread to Dad’s bladder and surrounding tissue. “This is an especially aggressive and vicious form of cancer,” he explained. “And there’s really nothing we can do to reverse it.” He said that he would prescribe some stronger pain medication in an effort to keep Dad comfortable.

After returning home, the family gathered together and tried to comprehend the magnitude of the situation before us. At one point Kihm explained that sometimes family members will tell their loved one that it’s okay to let go and quit fighting. She said it was up to each person to decide what they wanted to do. Kevin replied, “I’ll never be ready to tell him that.”

Then we had to discuss Dad’s wishes, which he had expressed verbally and in writing through a living will. Still, the decision was difficult. Josh explained it this way: If he went to the hospital, there would be a lot they could do to him, but not a whole lot they could do for him.

Hospice was called in on Friday. As Dad’s condition worsened, Kevin was able to tell his father that it was okay to let go. Two days later we received a call from Kihm. “Dad is with the Lord now,” she said tearfully.


Eight out of nine grandchildren served as pall bearers at their grandfather’s funeral. (Josh was an honorary pall bearer, having served in a different capacity the week before.) In addition, all three children shared personal stories about their father.

Kihm shared many memories from her growing up years, and several “one-liners’ that she recalled her Dad saying. (I’ve added a few more sayings to Kihm’s list.)

1. When you asked him how he was, he would often reply: “Bearing up under the strain,” or, “Doing the best I can with what I’ve got to work with.”

2. When he wanted to take a nap: “It’s stretch-out time.”

3. When everyone was on their own for dinner: “It’s fender night – fend for yourself.”

4. When giving advice without really giving advice: “I’m not trying to tell you how to run your business, but can I make a suggestion?”

5. When preparing to fix a drink. “Doc said a drink every now and then would do me good,” or, “It’s five o’clock somewhere,” or, “I’m not very hungry, but I think I could munch on a beer.”

6. When Kihm and Mom would get to giggling in the car: “What kind of Kool-Aid are you girls drinking?”

7. When exploring or driving through a new town: “Just think – if you lived here, you’d be home now,” or, “We’re not lost, we’re just taking the scenic route.”

8. When talking about the best way to handle conflict: “Sugar draws more flies than vinegar.”

9. When talking about important meetings: “Always arrive 10 minutes early,” “Better overdressed than underdressed,” and, “God doesn’t charge you for your time.”

10. When waking his kids up when they were younger, “Rise and shine, it’s rabbit chasin’ time!”

11. When announcing that he was ready to go: “We’re gonna make a mile,” or “We’re gonna shake out of here.”

12. Miscellaneous one-liners: “It’s better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it”, and, “You don’t cut the dog’s tail off a little bit at a time.”

Kihm concluded her comments with the following words: “For twenty-five years, I have been a nurse. From the beginning of my career to the present, I have cared for every patient as if they were my dad. In the last year, as I went with my father to the doctor he would say to everyone, “I brought my two nurses with me.” I had the ultimate privilege of my life to care for my dad. And yes, I was at his bedside holding his hand when he took his last breath. I wouldn’t give up the last 400 days of my life, living every day with him, for anything in the world.”

Kevin’s talk centered around the two words his dad always greeted him with: “Hey Bud.” Whether he was taking him on a motorcycle ride while vacationing in Indonesia as a kid, giving him advice as a young adult, and later as a husband and father, or whether he was telling him, in all seriousness, how he did not want to die. “I’ve seen what hospitals can do to a person to keep them alive, Kevin, and I want you to promise me that you kids won’t allow that to happen to me.”

Kevin closed his message with these words, “There's going to be a void in my life from not hearing, ‘Hey, Bud,’ from my dad. But the Bible tells us, and I believe, that there will be a reunion in Christ’s kingdom. So I know that one day, I will hear those words, in that voice, again.”

Keen shared some humorous stories about a few mishaps Dad had over the years while attempting to help out. Those stories included the time he started Keen’s truck on fire while in the process of changing oil, and the time he killed everything in our garden with granules of ground killer which he mistook for fertilizer, after having just planted several varieties of tomatoes and other vegetables in perfectly straight rows.

But that was Dad. He wasn’t happy unless he was doing something to help his family. In fact, he rarely ended a telephone conversation without saying, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” And Dad wouldn’t have minded a bit that his friends and family had a few laughs at his funeral. Truthfully, that’s most likely the way he would have wanted it. As Victor Borge once said, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,” and no one could tell a joke better than my father-in-law. He had a vast reservoir of good, clean jokes stored up in his memory, and he was always ready to pull one out whenever the opportunity arose. I think my favorite joke was one he used to tell about a grade school production of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The teacher could only come up with two brown bear costumes and one white one for the baby bear. So when Papa Bear delivered his famous line, “Who’s been sleeping in my bed?” - someone in the audience hollered out, “He might well ask!”

Dad’s sense of humor remained intact until the very end. One day when Kihm was trying to determine how coherent he was, she asked him if he knew her name. After a short pause, Dad looked up at her and said, “Well, it used to be Kihm.”

Even though we were all somewhat prepared for Dad’s death, Keen took it harder than he thought he would. When one of his colleagues asked him how he was doing, he said he felt like he used to be on solid ground, but now it seemed the ground beneath his feet had shifted. Later he said there are no words that can ease the pain of such a great loss – it’s like putting mud on a bruise. When I asked Keen to describe how he was feeling he said it reminded him of how parents feel when they take their kids to an amusement park and they run off and get lost in the crowd. The parents are scratching their heads and thinking, “But they were just here!” Keen said that’s how he felt, except this time he’s the kid and he’s looking around for his Dad, but he’s gone. And he just keeps thinking, “But he was just here.”

“Love only hurts when you can't give it away (to the ones you love).” ~ My friend, Kat

No one has felt the loss more than my mother-in-law, Jean. Recently, when Mom attended a Christmas production with Kihm and Kevin, the tears started flowing once again as the carolers sang, “Blue Christmas” (by Billy Hayes and Jay Johnson).

I’ll have a blue Christmas without you
I’ll be so blue just thinking about you
Decorations of red on a green Christmas tree
Won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me

And when those blue snowflakes start falling
That’s when those blue memories start calling
You’ll be doing all right, with your Christmas of white
But I’ll have a blue, blue Christmas

Although Jim and Jean shared fifty-three years together, it never seems quite long enough to spend with the love of your life. That’s when we have to hold on to our faith which assures us that because of God’s very first Christmas gift of His Son Jesus, we can all look forward to a glorious family reunion in Heaven – one that will last for all eternity. And we can find comfort in the fact that Dad will be “doing all right, with his Christmas of white.”

“In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” ~ John 14:2 (KJV)

Christmas 2004