When you finally get the news, you hope you’ll be ready. You never know until the moment arrives, until you’re finally confronted with the long-awaited reality.
A few weeks ago, my mom called to tell me that my father’s long fight with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s was coming to an end. Seven years of fading memories, of weight loss, of slow death. Seven years of decline, then plateau, then sharp decline again. Seven years of stooping shoulders, trembling hands, increasingly vacant eyes. It was finally coming to an end.
Memories of a Happy Father
He wasn’t always like that. In the weeks since my father’s passing, I’ve seen pictures and watched old videos. They’ve rekindled my memory of my father whole, before he grew dim and faded from the world. You can see the brightness in his eyes in every picture, the sly smile that told you he had a one-liner he was about to use on you, the ease with which he engaged with everyone around him.
He gave me my first experience of true masculinity. Whether he was up early preparing breakfast or up late doing dishes, he embodied the glad assumption of sacrificial responsibility that is the mark of manhood.
Seeing those pictures reminded me of the dad I’d lost: present and active, engaged and unashamed of his sons, happy and self-forgetful. When I say, “Be the smile of God to your children,” my mind can’t help but recall his smile, his presence, his laughter. I miss him.
Living Beneath Death’s Dark Shadow
In the end, my dad wasn’t laughing. His eyes were half-closed, his body twisted by the wasting disease, his mouth open, his breathing labored. Death is ugly. There is nothing romantic about it. Our instinctive recoil when we see it up close reminds us that it’s unnatural, that it’s a curse. We were made to live, even if, because of sin, we are born to die.
When I got the call from my mom, I was reminded that Death casts a long shadow. I could feel it coming to rest over my house, over my family. Like dark clouds of gloom and despair, it settled into the air of my home, suffocating us with the stench of its unstoppable reality.
In that moment, I was faced with a pointed question: What will I do when I see Death’s dark shadow approaching, when I see it flying through the air at me as if shot from a devilish bow? Seeing the Last Enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26) on the horizon, girded for battle, how should I then live? How can I not waste the hour of my father’s all-too-soon departure?
Fiery Darts and Darting Fingers
Thankfully, my father had taught me well, and I was ready. In the midst of packing for the long trip home, I grabbed my youngest son, threw him on the bed, and we had the tickle fight of our lives. We laughed until our bellies hurt. My dad may not have been able to laugh anymore. So my son and I laughed for him, me through tears and sorrow, and him with the unclouded eye of childhood delight. Afterward, I wrote this:
Death came for the last laugh, a fiery dart from the scaly fist of the Dragon and his evil brood. But my dented and battle-worn shield has caught the black arrow and quenched the demonic flame. I will reignite this pointed bolt with blood-bought grace and send it back whence it came. My Dad’s last act will be an Act of War, another assault on Death’s Fell Gates.
The Devil’s Dart of Death has died on this shield of faith. More than that, it has been raised as my darting fingers and the peals of laughter that issue from my son’s belly into the air that was once ruled unchallenged by the Dark Prince. But the Air and Earth is now a war zone, and the Dark Prince is in retreat. The Son of Man was lifted up and the gauntlet was thrown down. Like my father, I belong to Christ, and I am waging war with this laughter, these fingers, the brightness in the young eyes of a good man’s grandson.
I stand on my father’s shoulders, and reach for the sky. My eyes can see farther because his back was strong. And now I hoist my own sons on my shoulders so that they too may chase the horizon of God’s goodness. My dad sowed his seeds, and I am his fruit, one of many. So I will sow and sow again, until Harvest comes and we are all reaped together. In the end, Death is merely a shadow, swallowed up in the brightness of Everlasting Day. Jesus has shown us the way: In God’s world, because of the gospel, because the Word became flesh, because God dwelt among us, faithful death always leads to resurrection. And so in grief and sorrow, through weeping and tears, we can sing:
O Come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
Our spirits by thine advent here.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And Death’s dark shadow put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel!
More from Joe Rigney: