Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

Life With A Dying Parent

I’m sitting in the early morning on the tarmac waiting to come home. I’ve been on a journey many sons and daughters must take—to help shepherd a dying parent into eternity. I’m not sure anyone is really prepared for this. On the way down, I read a  chapter by Anthony Robinson (“It’s About God, Stupid”). Little did I realize how critical this chapter would be in preparing me for these days. It pointed my heart to a most centering text:

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day; and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” Mark 4:26-29

There is this role we play, this role I am pretty good at playing. No, really good at playing. We cast seed. We put possibilities into play. I came to San Diego under the assumption my dad had one, maybe two more days before death would have its way. But after life supports were removed, dad moved from the edge of death back to life. We knew it was dad’s wishes, as it is ours, not to extend dying. But life has these odd turns.

These last days have been a tug of war with a medical establishment seemingly determined to do whatever heroic measures are necessary to sustain life. We have made it clear we are not materialists clinging to life on this earth at any price (and it does cost!). We have a deep faith

that there is life on the other side, and it is far better. Our theology tells us it is okay to go—we are in Somalia with the plane on the tarmac headed for Hawaii—only far superior to this. This is life with Jesus.

But while we, my mom and sister and extended family, have labored to ensure death is not unnecessarily extended, it is not ours to accelerate death. Through all of this, I have been this busy farmer, putting possibilities into play (ask the nurses and doctors I have encountered these past three days). I have had to deal with a hospital that at times has been brilliant, and at times inept. For four days I have had to clarify wishes with doctors, run between hospital floors asking why one floor has not communicated with the other. We have left clear instructions to only provide comfort, only to come back to find people ordering x-rays.

Each day I have come to the hospital to say good by, only to find my dad more alert. I have been in conversations with funeral directors in the morning, making the necessary arrangements for the body’s disposal, and with hospice workers in the afternoon, trying to find a future bed once dad possibly leaves the hospital. After hearing the doctor say my dad will not get better, that his time is short, I have attempted to intercept well meaning visitors and ask them not to tell dad, “Hey Paul, we are praying you get strong again. You are looking good. In no time, will be back playing cards and having fun.”

At the end of these roller coaster days, running and managing and hoping to keep some control, I have gone back to the house emotionally numb, knowing I have no control at all.

In all of this, I have at times simply come to my end with God and asked—what are You doing!!? (I added the exclamation marks to give clues as to how I have asked). I have informed Him of our wishes, and at times, God seems more difficult to deal with than the hospital, more difficult to track down than the doctor. Sometimes it seems we have been more concerned with timing than God. Why does God extend these things? Why does He seemingly shut the body down, only to seemingly breathe back new life? Why is He putting me through this? Am I supposed to be learning something? (short answer—yes)

In one of the more bizarre moments, after again informing medical professionals that their procedures are counter productive, a nurse stepped in and announced—”I understand you want antibiotics and sugar drips, and everything else to stop. And then she pulled the plug.” All of this while my dad and I were in a deep conversation about which riding lawn mower to purchase.

It’s all rather surreal. But last night, I did tell dad goodbye—only this was the last time. There is this flight to catch. And I stepped out, knowing I won’t see him until heaven. And suddenly, the gates opened, and I deeply wept in the hall. And I reflected on this—God all along had been doing something amazing. He allowed me to tell my dad how much I have loved him and how grateful I am that of all the fathers I could have had, none could have been better to me than dad. He took me on his sales routes when I was a kid, and taught me how to be an adult. He instilled hard work. He demanded much, and I determined to rise to the occasion. When he finally had resources later in life, he lavished generosity on me. When I told him at 3 am I was not going to the Air Force Academy (an appointment he was so proud of), and told him I was going into the ministry (a profession he has so often associated only with pain), he bit his tongue and gave me the freedom to do whatever I felt led to do. And last night, in our last exchange, he told me what any son longs to hear—”I am proud of you son.”

It is God who determines when the seed sprouts. I am still learning this. As Robinson points out, we have a role, a necessary one. But we are not in charge. It’s not all about me, my strengths, my gifts, my skills, and my resolve. I have a role, but it is not primary. It all makes for an uneasy dance—knowing when to wait and when to move into action. When to plant—when to listen in silence and wait in wonder. With dad, I still wait. But that is okay, more than okay. I just need to be ready to go in at the harvest, whatever that may mean.

  • sewcreative
    4:25 AM, 11 April 2014

    So here I am dear brother, still waiting. This is not the journey I thought that I would ever be on…yet it shouldn’t surprise me..it’s so dad. I feel as though I am being stretched in more ways than I thought possible. And I don’t ever remember experiencing so many different emotions…they go from one end of the spectrum to the other..has it been that way for you? How is he able to do that? Again…it’s so dad. I don’t know how many days we have left on this journey John, but if you don’t finish trip without an incredible message, I fear we both will have missed the hidden treasure that we were meant to find. Thanks for being here to help keep us on the Life Raft.

  • Patricia Marie Logan
    4:09 AM, 3 August 2014

    Thank you so much for sharing. I too had to walk my father to God’s doorstep and for once unselfishly let God do what he thought best. It’s hard to loose a parent and being the only daughter, his princess and apple of his eye it just about chocked me to walk that road. I did alot of growing during the last 4 days of my dads life. I, my mother and 2 brothers made decisions together I never thought we would. Dad had a strong faith in God and he took his time in taking that last breath. I often wondered why it took so long but I’m figuring it out now, 10 months since his death why. My father had the party of his life his last day on this earth. I remember the Redskins won!!! That was important to him, we had a concert with my niece singing all his Patsy Klein songs to him without a tear but with happiness she was asked to do that with my brother playing their guitars, all the things dad loved and at one point during all of this I pulled the hospice nurse out of the room to ask "doesn’t he need peace and quiet to die?" His response "ABSOLUTELY NOT". I looked at him wondering if he wasn’t out of his mind but looking back these were steps in which my dad took in dying to make each hour a little easier, maybe even happier for us. Crazy I know but we were actually as a family (15 people including a sister who could get there, 4 grandkids who all flew in desperate to make it there) my mother, myself, my two brothers, the hospice nurses who became part of our family. I look back and just say WOW! This was all God’s plan for us to be able to say with a small smile when that pain creeps up that we came together as a family and walked my father, my mentor and best friend to God’s door with dignity and so much love! WE ARE SO BLESSED! I could go on and on but the last 4 words describe what we as his family are left with and that is GOD’S BLESSING’ and there is nothing that tops that!

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