It was Christmas Eve, when my father confirmed our worst fears. We had gathered together as we did each year, with the arrival of my parents marking the beginning of the festive season. That night, the mood was boisterous as we congregated around the dining table, with the pressures of work behind us. As dinner came to a close and the table was cleared, my father produced a letter and silently handed it to me. My sisters crowded around as we read with quiet horror that my father had been diagnosed with lung cancer.
That summer, a small shadow had been discovered on my father’s lung, but tests proved inconclusive. As my father was fit and active, the consultant advised further tests to determine a diagnosis, but my father demurred as the tests would be invasive. As my father had a heart defect, he feared any procedure may lead to complications, which may render him disabled. Being a religious man, he had no fear of death and preferred a sudden departure, rather than reliance on 24-hour care, which would only delay the inevitable. Consequently, the consultant pursued alternative avenues and the diagnosis came months later, through a PET scan.
We had been prepared to some extent by the alarm bells that summer, but had remained optimistic that it needn’t be cancer, especially as the consultant had offered a number of possibilities. Consequently, the finality of the diagnosis stunned us. We were advised that as my father was eighty-three, invasive tests were now essential before appropriate treatment could be determined. Knowing my father’s antipathy towards such procedures, we agreed that if we accompanied him to each appointment, our positivity, love and support would strengthen him and mitigate the likelihood of a complication. However, I knew there was more I could do to help prepare my father.
My father and I shared a deep love for God and throughout my adult life, I’d been able to lift his spirits with stories about God. Whenever I visited my parents for the weekend, my father would be sad on Sunday morning, knowing I would soon leave. As I never wanted to leave him feeling low, I’d begin to talk to him about God, telling him tales about my recent encounters with God or anecdotes from books I was reading at the time. My father would listen as enchanted as a child, wide–eyed in wonder, as he drank in every detail. Watching his transformation was a joy to behold and by the time I was ready to leave, he’d be full of good cheer thanking me for the “sermon”, as he waved me off.
Consequently, I knew that the best way to prepare my father for the procedures was to talk to him about God. If my father believed we were following God’s guidance, he would have the strength and fortitude to proceed. So I travelled to my parents’ home a few days before each procedure and spent hours with my father, talking about faith. We talked about his early life and the steadfast presence of God at pivotal junctures, which visibly strengthened him emotionally and spiritually. Buoyed by reminders of his strong faith and the presence of his children, my father passed through each procedure without a single complication. Throughout this time, we remained upbeat as a family as we eagerly awaited news about the best course of treatment. Consequently, we were ill prepared for the shattering news that the cancer had spread and that treatment was no longer possible.
It’s difficult to articulate the anguish, which accompanied such devastating news. Our father was the head of our family – our leader. We worshipped him. Even when he entered his eighties, his predominant concern remained the welfare of his children and grandchildren. He thought little of his own comfort and kept us firmly at the centre of his universe, basking in our achievements and taking great pride in the “kingdom” he had created. However, he wasn’t just our father. He was a father to the wider family and the community in which he lived; the archetypal wise elder. The thought of losing him was unbearable and for a brief time, we were lost in a cloud of darkness.
Throughout this time, I’d spent a great deal of time praying for my father’s life. I’d convinced myself that the cancer could be treated and that my father would be with us for a few more years. I was single-minded in this belief and refused to consider any other possibility, reminding myself that all things were possible with God. Consequently, the definitiveness of the prognosis crushed all hope and I turned to God in despair.
I questioned why God hadn’t answered our prayers and extended our father’s life. Why couldn’t we have a few more years together? I knew God could do anything, so why did He fail to act? These were rhetorical questions and the reality was that my father had lived a long, fulfilling and productive life, reaching every milestone expected for a man of his generation. We had enjoyed an extraordinary life together, an incredible closeness and had no regrets. So even as the pain flowed, so did the gratitude because I couldn’t lose sight of the fact that we had been incredibly blessed. God had never promised us a particular outcome. His guidance had always been about the moment – about each day and not the future. Furthermore, I knew better than to throw childish tantrums because the outcome had not been the answer to our prayers, and at a time of unprecedented grief, I turned to God for guidance.
God began by explaining that He didn’t view death as a tragedy, but as a homecoming. Irrespective of whether a life was long or short, each had a purpose. God reminded me that my father’s life exemplified the magnificent evolution of a soul. A life, which had begun with such struggle and hardship but had been transformed by the way he lived his life. God reminded me of the values my father taught us, the sacrifices he made, the work ethic he instilled and the faith he had planted. But above all, God pointed to my father’s unstinting life of service, firstly to his family and then to his community. For God, this was not a time of mourning, but a time to rejoice because a precious soul was returning home after a life well lived.
God’s perspective brought a sense of peace, but I questioned why my father had to endure the inevitable suffering which accompanied this pernicious disease. Why couldn’t it have been something sudden like a heart attack, which is what he would have preferred? He now faced the precise fate he had prayed to avoid – a debilitating decline which would eventually render him reliant on 24-hour care.
Again, God saw the situation differently, pointing out that despite my father taking great pride in the worldly accomplishments of his children, his measure of a successful life lay in the values by which his children lived. We had been raised to believe that taking care of elderly or sick parents was godliness and earthly achievements counted for nothing, if they prevented service to parents in their darkest hour. No one could argue that both my father (and mother) were facing the most difficult time of their lives, and what better opportunity to demonstrate their teachings had not been in vain? What greater demonstration of a successful life could our father have, than to witness his children live the values he honoured so deeply?
Finally, God noted that the diagnosis also afforded my father the opportunity to put his affairs in order, to say proper farewells and to orchestrate a symbolic passing of the baton. The significance of these events could not be underestimated as many passed away without final goodbyes and with regrets and unfinished business.
Listening to God helped put things in perspective and we drew enormous strength from our faith. We approached the final chapter of our father’s life resolute that we would spend whatever time remained, demonstrating our unfailing love and support. We moved our parents into our home and took care of our father’s needs with infinite love, patience and kindness. And even as we watched his life gently ebb away, we never lost sight of the privilege we’d been given of lovingly taking his hand and placing it in God’s mighty palm, as we gave thanks for a life well lived.