Faithful Living: The ride of life can turn suddenly

Going out to eat sounded like a great way to celebrate our middle child’s 18th birthday, so we let her choose the restaurant and invited my dad and step-mom to join us. It was a happy occasion as we took our places around the extended table and strategized about our selections so we could share bites with each other.

Even though our family had been restructured only three years prior to this celebration when my dad remarried, we had placed emphasis in reworking our family structure and the celebrating felt easy. There were breadsticks to eat, cards to open, and gifts to unwrap. We talked about our eldest daughter —missing because she had a big test the next day and lived two hours away to attend college.

Still, there was the usual playful teasing, some of it directed at me. I’m an easy target as I easily laugh at myself and remain hopelessly motherly. But on this night my usually playful dad would have none of it. “You’re being too hard on your mom,” he gently chided everyone from his end of the table.

With a laugh I looked down the table and offered a smile to the one man who had loved me unconditionally for 47 years. The man who offered me bucking bronco rides to bed when I was little, helped me with homework, introduced me to the beauty of the U.S. during summer camping vacations, lived modestly so he could pay for my college education, and attended every big event in my life. Years later he would be the one to hold each of my babies moments after their births and cherish them by relishing his role as grandfather.

As I gazed intently at him, I realized he looked slightly gray. He ate slowly and appeared introspective, when on any given day he would have been a constant source of fascinating information, questions, jokes, and enjoyment. On that night last October he was tentative, instead. He revealed, after some prodding, that he looked forward to a doctor’s appointment the following morning. We boxed his dinner and abbreviated our evening so he could get to bed at a reasonable hour.

That’s allowed when you’re 78.

Moments before he left we all leaned through the car window to kiss his slightly scruffy cheek. He promised to call me following his appointment as I patted his bulging belly, something I had never seen before on his slender frame.

The following afternoon my step-mother called from her elementary school classroom. Dad had driven to the doctor, but it was determined he needed extended testing and should not drive himself to the hospital. An ambulance had been summoned and she was hurrying to get a substitute so she could join him.

That was Wednesday afternoon. I was encouraged to stay put and wait for additional news as testing would keep Dad and specialists busy for the day. Wednesday evening he rested after much poking, prodding, and assessing. Results wouldn’t be available until the next day. In the meantime he had been placed on oxygen and doctors had drained fluid from his belly to test it for clues.

On Thursday family members began gathering and together we boarded the roller coaster. We were told a team of specialists had assembled for his case, but they were not introduced to us and we were not informed whom had been chosen and why. Some of us looked stoic, others optimistic for no other reason than we didn’t want to scare the grandkids who were mature enough to take the ride with us.

Outside the window it seemed like the world moved forward without us. Inside the hospital we vibrated with nervous energy. Most of us lost our appetites. Some of us got sleepy. Others had a difficult time sitting still. I frequently slipped into the hallway to pray. My brother, the PhD, peppered conversations with doctors and nurses with reasoned questions.

The kids watched.

And so it went. The door would open and a doctor would bustle in, chart in hand. We’d replay our story. They would think out loud, posing possibilities and action plans. Some would take a moment to encourage us. Others would walk in, appearing distant and businesslike. It exhausted us to quickly assess their style, process unfamiliar vocabulary, and piece together information arriving in random order.

Up we’d soar. Moments later the roller coaster would drive us into despair when a new doctor with more test results and another theory would enter the room. We knew not where we’d go or when we could get off. In the waiting room down the hall we’d make quick calls to update worried friends and family, but grew so weary at moments we’d often sit beside each other in complete silence.

On Friday, words I dreaded filtered in through the mist. Cancer. Stage Four. Origin unknown. Hospice.

My heart raced. My temples pounded. My thoughts slowed to a simple prayer.

Lord, Jesus...

How can this be?

Grace, please.

Strength, please.


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