Lessons from my father’s deathbed: the art of dying well

I was with my dad when he died.

We all stood in this circle, holding hands. At least I think we were holding hands. But some of that, the small details, are starting to slip away. I don’t want them to slip away. But I know we were in a circle – watching.

I was singing. It was what I knew he would want – all the old hymns. My daughter Kayden calls them hymnals, even though hymnals are the books where you find the hymns. But anyway, I was singing all his favorites.

How Great Thou Art.

Amazing Grace.

Almost 17 years ago we were standing in that circle. Much of it is a blur. I remember the beeping machines, the white blanket covering his body. I remember my mom whispering in his ear. I remember my 10-day new husband, pressing the morphine button. Everything else is like a dream sequence – the part of the movie where everything turns fuzzy and soft.

I remember watching the machines, waiting for the miracle.

Praying for the miracle.

The night before, every hour, I would wake amidst the bodies of my family trying to sleep twisted and turned in the ICU waiting room. I would stand and walk through the whoosh of the automatic door, past the nurses’ station, into his room. I remember the doors and wall were glass so they could watch him all the time.

I would gingerly swab his dry lips, give him water, sit by his side. Even though he was in and out of consciousness, I didn’t want him to be alone.  I couldn’t understand why the nurses weren’t all stationed beside him like sentries, ready to meet his every need. It was a ridiculous expectation, but he was my daddy.

I remember the little girl part of me that refused to believe the inevitable.

He would not die.

His organs would wake up and start working again. His eyes would open. He would tell me the story of Freddie the elephant shutting the door of the ark for Noah and all the animals.

When they told us it was time, it all flashed by in a jumble of tears and songs and words and touches. We were in that circle. All of us.

The beeping slowed.

The line that bumped his heart beat began to go from hills to flatland.

His breathing grew ragged.

Mom told him it was okay.

It was okay to go.

And then it was over.

We stood for awhile. It was quiet. The holy silence of someone’s soul going to the next place, the better place.

I asked the nurse for scissors.

I cut the thick hair – the hair I blow dried for him just weeks before. When he was better. When he was laughing and sitting and stealing my hot ham and cheese sandwich.

I tucked his hair in the plain envelope – the nurses weren’t prepared for the grown up little girl who wanted a piece of her daddy to take home.

We hugged him, lay on his chest. But it was just his shell.

In those last few moments, the reality of the very thin line between life and death was blaring at us like a fog horn. How quickly we are born, how feverishly we live, how soon we die.

It makes living every day like its the last one a real thing. A thing that’s more than a mantra and a cute saying to engrave into a cuff on my wrist.

The real thing.

My wise husband says this life is short and the next one is long. So he wants to do the stuff in this life that matters in the next one.

I say, make today the best day ever. It’s the more “Carrie version” of my husband’s philosophy. Because if today were my last day I would want it to be my best day.

The days I spent with my dad, he was always living the best day ever philosophy. He taught it to me.  He just didn’t call it that. He was a model of joy-choosing in the midst of the worst, most painful, circumstances.

And as I stood by his deathbed, I was still learning from one of my favorite teachers. He not only taught me to live well, he taught me to die well. I had watched him love on nurses who couldn’t find a vein for the needle. I had watched him fearlessly walk the hallways, his body wracked in pain. I had watched him comfort my mother, my brother, myself. I had watched him laugh as he lay in a stiff hospital bed. He had spoken words of no regret, only love. He would live his last months, days, minutes, and seconds, choosing his response to dark circumstances, finding joy in the One who would soon celebrate with him in heaven.

My father taught me the difference between joy and happiness. Happiness is a mere emotion – one that we can’t control. It is dependent on our circumstances. Joy is a deep rooted understanding that there is more to this life than happiness. It is the settled question. It is the faith foundation we have that gives us hope in the smack dab middle of the fiercest storm.

James considered it joy whenever he faced trials of all kinds (James 1:2). That was definitely not happiness. It was the joy that came from knowing Who would help him face those trials. It was the joy that came from a life of purpose. It was the joy that rested in truth. I can guarantee that even the pillars of the bible weren’t always “happy” when they were in prison, being stoned, being persecuted.

But they had joy.

If you go on in that scripture, James says that tests, troubles, trials – they produce endurance. They create a chance for you to grow.

My dad did that. He chose joy in the midst of his cancer stuff.

A little further on in that scripture, it says that if you need wisdom, though, in the middle of these troubles, ask God for it – and God will give it generously.

My dad did that, too. I would imagine it wasn’t easy to joy-choose during his journey. But his sweet communication in relationship with Jesus gave him the wisdom and strength he needed to keep choosing. It wasn’t always happy. But it was always joy.

My father was teaching me until the moment he died. And as I face the inevitable trouble this world eventually gifts to everyone, I can know that my hero modeled for me the way we should all live – and die.

We just have to make the choice.