“Not a good time of year for this sort of thing,” I said to his daughter, Annette, who had come to the nursing home on the first day of December to pick up her father so she could take him home to die.
“I’m not sure there is a good time of year for this sort of thing,” she said quietly, her eyes focused on her father’s chest as it heaved up and down. There was no reprimand in her voice; only the tired resignation of one who has spent too many months praying for her father’s life to be preserved even while she fervently wished to see his suffering end.
She was right, of course. And yet something about it bothered me. Christmas is a season of miracles, replete with extraordinary gifts of life and love. It isn’t a good time to die — or to watch a loved one die.
But it is a good time to serve, and that’s what I saw happening as I watched the tender ministrations of Mark’s family. It was there in the determined way Annette’s husband, Lynn, scoured the care center in search of Mark’s few precious belongings. I heard it in the loving, sensitive way Annette spoke to her father even though there wasn’t much evidence that he was actually hearing anything she said. And I felt it in the gentle way Annette’s brother, Scott, sat next to his father in the back seat of the car, his arm draped comfortingly around Mark’s shoulders as his father’s head rested on his own shoulder.
Scott supervised as we transported Mark from Lynn’s car to the bed that had been prepared for him at his home. I was touched by the way Scott worried about his father’s comfort, draping a robe around his shoulders to protect him from the cool evening breeze and fussing with his slippers. He pushed the wheelchair and almost single-handedly lifted Mark into the bed. It wasn’t until Mark was comfortably situated, with a warm blanket tucked under his chin, that Lynn noticed that his father-in-law wasn’t breathing.
And just like that, Mark was gone. It was as if he had been working so hard to stay alive at the care center so he could be home, surrounded by his family, when he died.
“You were a good man,” Mark’s wife, Sue, said tearfully as she clutched his hand and said goodbye. “You were a good husband. You were a good father. We all love you.”
Those weren’t idle words, and I knew it. I had just spent an hour watching that love in action, manifest in a dozen or more little moments of benevolence. As I stood there quietly at the foot of Mark’s bed, I was awed and inspired by the very real human drama that was being played out before me. Today, years later, those images remain with me. As I recall the events of the day, I’m not overwhelmed by memories of sadness and grief. Rather, I remember the powerful service that was rendered in quiet, simple ways by loving family members who filled Mark’s final hours with sweet devotion and profound respect.
Their example has motivated me through the years to do likewise, and to reach out to those I love in meaningful ways. Often during the holidays we focus our time and attention on showing our love for our family and friends through the things that we purchase. This year, in memory of Mark and his family, I’m going to try to do better at showing my love for the important people in my life through the things that I do during a season of service, kindness, compassion and good will.
Because, the way I see it, this is the perfect time of year for that sort of thing.
(To read more from Joseph B. Walker go to www.josephbwalker.com.)