Through the Valley of Death
Learning the painful lessons of faith
It is Friday night. Two days ago we returned to our southwest Florida home after being gone eight months. After we finish our sundown devotions we sit silently a few moments. Hymns from our stereo fill the room with serenity. Flames from two candles burning in tall glass holders waver in the air blowing from the air-conditioner, creating moving shadows on the wall.
My wife’s shoulders begin to heave. Tears are about to run down her face.
“It’s almost like I can see her,” she says, looking at the flickering candles. “Almost like I can see her smiles, hear her voice, her laughter.” Her voice is shaking. Her tears keep coming.
More than nine months before this Friday evening our phone rings. Our younger daughter is calling. She tells us she is eager for Christmas, when we will be together in California with our other daughter and her family. Then she asks the question we have been dreading.
“After Christmas, can you come stay with me for a while?” We dread the question, not because we don’t want to stay with her, but because she is telling us that she believes she is dying and she needs us. We know her condition and have talked about this possibility. We have prayed that she would not have to ask us, but she has. Of course we’ll come.
As One Who Sees the Invisible
In January we go to stay with her. At midafternoon when we land at the airport, the thermometer registers 16 degrees, a punishing temperature compared to what we left a few hours earlier. The next day we go with her to the cancer clinic for a chemo infusion. Down the hall from the elevator we see a wall papered with art by schoolchildren. One piece catches my eye.
“The One who sees the invisible can do the impossible,” it says. In this very secular place I do not expect this expression of faith in divine intervention.
Next week we take her back for another treatment. And a scan. I see the poster on the wall again and pray that God will touch her with His healing hand. Another week passes. We walk under the poster once again, and I pray once more for a miracle.
Before the infusion begins, we sit before a monitor while the physician reviews the results of the scan. He confirms that the chemo drug is ineffective. It is her sixth or seventh chemo cycle during the past four and a half years. The cancer is growing. She has no more alternatives.
“I’ll stop the treatments,” she says. “I’ll enjoy what time I have left.” She looks at me. “Are you OK with that, Daddy?”
Our eyes lock. I do not see a 55-year-old woman who, with a graduate degree and a career as a math teacher, has reveled in decision-making. I see her once more as our little girl for whom parental assent is still important.
“When my head tells me one thing and my heart says the opposite, it’s not easy.” My voice is husky. I can hardly get the words out. She reaches over to grip my hand.
Her nurse who has been treating her from the beginning of her illness comes in to say goodbye. She gives each of us a hug and hurriedly leaves with a flushed face and eyes awash with tears. The physician talks softly. He notifies hospice that our daughter needs its services. We drive her back to her condo that overlooks a quiet ocean harbor.
The next day we go to her office and help her clean out everything. She tells her school principal she will not be back. Later that Friday afternoon a 24-hour blizzard begins to dump two feet of snow on us. We light a fire in the fireplace.
The next week the hospice nurse establishes a regimen of medications to control her discomfort. My wife administers painkillers. The first dosage of the day is at 5:00 a.m.
Our daughter calls her friends to come see her so she can tell them about her decision. We take her to a funeral home, where she buys a package plan. She wants us to bury her in Tennessee, where she spent most of her growing-up years. She buys a grave plot beside her much-loved niece, our only granddaughter, who died scarcely a year before, a 23-year-old victim of a brain tumor. She lays plans for her own memorial service and asks friends to take charge. Her friends bring us food. Our other daughter and son travel to her side to tell her goodbye.
Preparing for the Journey
For a month she feels well enough to go places and be with friends. Five weeks after her treatments end, she takes to her bed. Another Friday evening arrives. Outside, darkness encloses the condo complex. The town snuggles in a foot of fresh snow. The mercury hovers below 25 degrees. A fire crackles in the fireplace. The soaring tones of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir fill the room. With such powerful music conversation becomes superfluous.
“Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou, who changest not, abide with me!”
The prophetic meaning of the lyrics silences me. I look at our daughter. She wants to enjoy this quiet evening with us. She is listening, but she tires easily.
“I must go back to bed,” she says. We don’t realize it at the time, but it is her last Friday evening that she tries to spend with us away from her bed. For another hour my wife and I try to read while listening to the inspiring music. Finally we turn off the lights.
Mostly, the pain control works well. A couple evenings it doesn’t. Her discomfort intensifies. She lies quietly, her face drawn tight. My wife calls the hospice office and receives permission to increase the dosage of painkiller. I pray. My wife holds her hands, and I stroke her forehead. “That feels good,” she says. “It helps.”
An hour later I stop, not because I’m tired, but because her face is relaxed and her breathing is regular. Her pain is gone, and she sleeps peacefully.
My wife talks with the hospice nurse about the medicines. The strength of the dosages gradually increases. We both wonder how long our daughter can hold on to life. In late March she tells us she is ready to go, but she lives through April and wonders why she has not yet died. My wife stands by her bed, unsuccessfully trying to suppress her tears.
“We don’t want you to die,” she says, “but we don’t want you to suffer, either.”
Our daughter does not reply. Unaccountably, her appetite picks up, and her strength improves. Maybe it is sheer grit. To be with her more, we take our meals to her bedside and eat from TV tray tables. In May we manage to get her into the car and drive to the boat dock. A couple friends take her for a sailboat ride around the harbor. She is energized. The captain lifts her from the cockpit and stands her at the helm. For a while she guides the boat alone. She is in her element. She is smiling. Her face glows in the afternoon sun. With her hands on the wheel she looks like a picture of health and happiness. But she is dying.
In June another boat ride and a short trip around town to see the late-spring flowers. She sits in the front seat so she can see better. Former students honor her with a party in a clubhouse at a nearby golf course. From her wheelchair she chats with friends.
Waiting for Dawn
As the daylight hours peak late in June, the sun moves north and shines in her bedroom window. She describes the captivating sunrises. The next morning I awaken early and creep into her room. It is not yet 5:00 a.m. The sun shines through the vapors rising from the sea at dawn. A golden aura enshrouds the harbor. Silhouetted in the gilded mists are the lighthouse on the other side of the harbor and the boats moored on golden water.
I am entranced. It is more beautiful than her descriptions. I look at her sleeping and tiptoe out of her room. I do not want to wake her. Her sleep is more important than the view.
That afternoon she asks, “Daddy, did you come into my room early this morning?”
“Did you see the sunrise?”
“Yes, it was beautiful. It was really a golden morning.”
“I thought you did.” She smiles. I am wrong. For her, ill as she is, sharing the magic of a sunrise is more important than sleep. She is declining. She sleeps more. She is sometimes confused about whether it is morning or afternoon. It takes her longer to process information. She loses weight. Her face becomes thin. Her legs are weak. Sometimes she can hardly stand up in the bathroom. If she talks very long with her friends she is exhausted. She gives away most of her clothes and other things from her closets. She confides to a friend that it may be time for her to go to the hospice house.
The nurse arrives with the news that the hospice house has only one vacant bed left. Our daughter sits motionlessly in her wheelchair by the glass doors opening to her deck. She is looking down on the harbor, her back to the room. Her shoulders are wasted and frail. She plans to return to her bed soon. The nurse tells her about the vacant bed.
“Let’s go,” she whispers. We spend another hour by the glass doors waiting for the ambulance. My hand moves back and forth across her shoulders. She rests her head against me.
We say nothing, but we communicate. Finally I stoop to put my lips to her ear. “I love you.”
She presses her head against me. “And I love you,” she says. The ambulance driver arrives and wheels her out the door. She knows she will not return. Ever. But she is resolute. She does not look back or ask for one last view of the harbor and the boats. My wife sits by her side in the ambulance, holding her hand.
Together Till the End
Friends lend us an air mattress so we can sleep at the foot of her bed in the hospice house. Her face becomes even thinner. After a vesper prayer she keeps her eyes closed but reaches over the safety bars of the bed, searching for my hand. Her thin fingers clutch mine, much as an infant’s hand curls around a parent’s finger. “Thanks,” she says. “I need that assurance.”
She is weary from disease. On the fifteenth day in the hospice house her voice is so weak that we have to bend over to hear her. She slips into a deep sleep. Two days later her breathing becomes labored. It is even more so the next morning. We sit near her.
Her breathing changes, and we jump to her side. We hold her hands and press the button for the nurse. She arrives just as our daughter stops breathing. The nurse watches her closely for a moment. She puts a stethoscope to her chest.
“I do not hear a heartbeat,” she says. She checks her watch. It is 8:50 a.m. Our daughter has just begun her final rest. We stand by her bed, not wanting to let go of her still-warm hands. It has been six and a half months since we arrived on that frigid January day to stay with her for a while. I recall an experience at her bedside.
“I don’t know why I am alive,” she says, “but it’s not my choice to decide when I go. So I am still here.” One of her dearest childhood friends sends her two gifts: a picture of Jesus holding a lamb against His breast, and a small pillow with a cover depicting a cloud of butterflies.
She points to a spot atop her television. “Put the picture up there,” she says. “It will be easy to see.” She keeps the pillow with her in bed. Now I look at her lifeless form. Her head is resting on the butterflies.
About two months after our vigil began, I went on an errand at the shopping mall. As I walked along the broad corridor between the stores, the noise was deafening. I wasn’t eavesdropping, but I caught a few words from the shoppers. Aggressive advertisements lunged at me from the windows. I heard music filtering out from the stores. At times it was raucous.
A sense of loneliness surged over me. The sounds and sights around me seemed shallow and meaningless. I had never felt more strongly that I had little in common with my materialistic surroundings, where the standard achievement is to be cool or sexy. Never was my conviction that this world is not my home more compelling. I could not erase the image of our daughter, lying on her bed, dying a day at a time. We could not prevent it. Helping her to meet death was a parental responsibility for which we had not prepared.
Our sorrowful experience was not part of the world that God had created. Arbitrary pain and hurt were not His means of dealing with this planet. He did not create people to subject them to despair and a pointless existence. He did not invent incurable diseases or death, to say nothing about children dying before their parents. Such conditions violate the very principle of life that He spoke into existence. God is not a God of contradiction.
During my long morning walks I had time to reflect on those thoughts. Often I passed near the sea or stood on a rock promontory, where I looked beyond the islets protruding above the waves to the blurred horizon where sky and water meet. Sometimes I leaned across a rail fence to watch the tide’s ebb and flow. The cry of seagulls pierced through the sound of the wind and the din of the surf pounding the shore. At times salty spray dampened my face.
Those walks by the sea showed me a maimed and scarred world. God did not create it in this condition. Frequently I thought of Job. His companions tried to rationalize his suffering by reducing God to human explanations. In the end God brought them to their senses by reminding them that He is beyond human understanding. He pointed to the mysteries of nature and asked if they could explain the workings of His creation. He simply requested that by faith they take Him at His word.
As I watched the ocean my eyes followed the crashing waves and the swooping flight of the gulls. Despite the contamination and death evident in the sea, birds still hatch their young each season, and the water remains where God put it. The scenes before me were undeniable assurances that God was still here and that His sustaining power kept the world functioning in spite of its blemishes. By faith I could know that He knew where we were and what we were experiencing. It is sometimes tempting to toy with the archdeceiver’s insinuations that God has caused the woes of this earth, but guilt by insinuation is unconvincing.
On this Friday evening we listen again to the lofty music of great hymns and look into the flames of the candles before us, candles in glass holders that once decorated our daughter’s home. Memories of our walk with her through the valley of death remain. I have heard people talk about returning to a normal life after experiencing closure. Perhaps, but I am dubious. Over time our daughter’s passing becomes more distant, but the ache in our hearts does not go away.
Standing on a rock promontory overlooking the sea or leaning across an old rail fence above the tide, I frequently repeat the elegant phrases of Thomas Moore’s nineteenth-century hymn that expresses the solace we all can know by faith when our circumstances defy a human explanation:
“Come, ye disconsolate, where’re ye languish;
Come to the mercy seat, fervently kneel;
Here bring your wounded hearts, here tell your anguish;
Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.”