Tuesday, August 05, 2008

When my father died

I was in my 30's when my father died. He was 59. His death was sudden and unexpected. My father was an athlete who climbed mountains, ran marathons and, not long before his passing, rode his bike across the state of Iowa. He worked the night shift at the Denver Post. He came home from work early one morning, sat back in his recliner with a bowl of jello, and his heart simply stopped beating. It was determined to be a freak occurrence of cardiac dysrhythmia--his heart simply misfired and failed to recover. He probably never even realized what was happening. The idea that, at any time, my heart could skip in such a lethal manner has haunted me ever since.

My mother found my father's body and called me. I rushed over to their house and knelt beside what was now clearly a cold and empty shell. I tried to take it all in. This was the first dead body I had ever seen, and it was my own vivacious father. I was overcome with grief and wonder at the same time. Perhaps I should command him to rise like Jesus did to Lazarus, I thought, but the leaden weight of death's finality crushed any hope or faith that might have momentarily flickered.

The paramedics and police came to confirm that he was indeed gone and that no foul play had occurred. They were efficient, polite and professional. A police chaplain appeared and knelt beside me. He kept making small-talk and speaking platitudes. I wanted him to just shut up and eventually I asked him, politely, to leave. I wish he would have practiced what Quakers call "the ministry of presence", which is to simply be silently present.

The coroners came, an older man and a younger man. They lifted my father's body from the recliner and placed him on a gurney, covering him securely with a sheet. I followed them as they maneuvered the gurney through the house, down the front porch steps and out to their van. With professional deftness they lifted the gurney into the back of the van, secured it, and closed the door.

Then the older coroner turned to me. He placed his hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye with a pure and intense sincerity that I can still remember vividly. There were tears in his eyes. "I will take care of him as if he were my own father.", he said.

And so my father passed into the hands of someone kind and compassionate. It was a great comfort to me.


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