When Christmas Looks Like Easter

Reflections from the First 72 Hours of Processing Grief

Jason Thompson / 1.16.20

On this mountain he will destroy
the shroud that enfolds all peoples,
the sheet that covers all nations;
The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears
from all faces;
he will remove his people’s disgrace
from all the earth…

– Isaiah 25:7-8

No one’s ever really gone

– Luke Skywalker

On Christmas Eve, my Dad slipped into a coma after having suffered 12 cardiac arrests over a period of several weeks. The doctors never figured out what was causing him to ‘code’, but it began during an early November surgical procedure to remove a mass from Dad’s throat that was preventing him from swallowing properly and enjoying food. All he wanted was to be able to sit down to a Cracker Barrel meal during Thanksgiving and once again know the taste and flavor of his favorite foods.

In retrospect, I believe my father knew he was mortally ill, but for whatever reason chose to keep it from my Mom, my brothers, and me. I still remember when he called us to the house about 3 years ago to let us know his kidneys were shutting down and that he was beginning dialysis shortly. What followed was a long wait for a kidney, a journey that included my evaluation and eventual disqualification from being a living donor; my wife and I anointing him with oil, laying hands, and praying for him; weekly dialysis sessions after which he would sometimes stop by our house for coffee and brief conversation (he was always a man of few words…except when he talked with my wife); the eventual reception of a donated kidney that ended being “sleepy” and virtually inactive; several trips back and forth to the UW Madison Hospital where he had mandatory follow-up with the transplant teams; and finally the alluded-to procedure to extract the polyp from his throat.

I think Dad knew he was leaving us soon. One afternoon during a visit, he casually mentioned to me, “I really like that song, Oh Danny Boy,” which is typically relegated to funerals. He and Mom never discussed finances, but in the last few months, he walked her through where to go, and who to consult to cash in on life insurance  and retirement policies. He requested that in the event of his death that my wife and I prevent the kids from seeing him in a casket. He politely declined when I asked him if he wanted to do anything special for his 75th birthday (January 2020). Dad knew he was near death’s door, but I will never understand why he refused to explicitly let us know.

In the immediate 72 hours of my little brother calling me Christmas morning and trying to restrain his grief as he informed me the doctors wanted to have a teleconference with us about Dad’s condition, I experienced a full range of nearly every emotion as well as an onslaught of irrational thoughts. “Dads aren’t supposed to leave you!” I exclaimed through tears as I abruptly unraveled in front of my wife, trying to keep the kids from seeing me losing my composure. “They’re supposed to stay with you forever! He needs to get up out of that sick bed right now! That’s what needs to happen!” I’m 41, but in that moment, I felt like I was 8. I felt helpless, confused, scared, naked, and broken. Where was my Dad? Why had he left me? What did I do wrong that my Dad is lying brain dead, animated only by a respirator, 90 miles away from home?

The week of Christmas, we had temperatures in the 50s in Milwaukee. Even my 8-year-old daughter noticed the dissonance between what should characterize Wisconsin holiday weather and the relative warmth and lack of snow we were seeing. The day after Christmas in fact bore a closer resemblance to an Easter morning than it did Christmas. The sky was overcast, the trees were barren, and the winds were gentle and warm. I woke up that morning feeling a literal sting all over my body that had begun to settle into my soul. The previous night, I had imbibed, perhaps a little too much, and inadvertently rattled off a gospel-soaked sermon about the Resurrection to my aforementioned inquisitive, yet grief-stricken daughter. In the middle of the night, I can remember having the sensation of drowning in sorrow, but eventually being buoyed by hope.

The morning of December 26th, a fellow City worker was outside replacing the “No Parking December – March” sign that had been displaced due to a nasty car collision that occurred on the corner right outside our home Christmas Day. I went outside to inquire what he knew about the incident as we weren’t home when it happened. During the course of our conversation, he nonchalantly mentioned, “I lost my Dad this past October.” At that point, we struck a common chord, and he commenced to not only document his personal experience of the grieving process, but also to expound on what seemed like his life’s story, as though I were a priest to whom he was confessing, or a chaplain whence he sought consolation. He talked a lot about Jesus and the ultimate family reunion that will ensue when the Lord returns. He had no idea he was corroborating everything I had shared with my daughter through a filter of slight inebriation.

The last time I felt this level of despair and sorrow was nearly 7 years ago, days after the birth of our youngest child, when a doctor informed me and my wife, “We think your daughter has trisomy 21.” I can remember slumping down in the driver’s seat of the Dodge, in the church parking lot, feeling like I’d hit my lowest point. That same little girl woke me up the day after Christmas excitedly asking me to read one of her favorite books, Peppa Pig. The particular title concerned Daddy Pig as the main protagonist. Why is this detail significant? When I heard that my Dad’s heart had stopped for 25 minutes and that as a result, his chances of recovery (in a state of having quality of life) were slim, I immediately felt abandoned in the world. Like, not only “Why did he leave without saying goodbye?”, but more importantly, “You left me all alone to figure out this parenting thing on my own.”

It’s not that I had a ton of conversations with my Dad about parenting or that he frequently gave me advice on how to raise my kids, though I do remember that he sporadically dropped nuggets of insight here and there when I would ask for wisdom. The abandonment I felt, though, had more to do with feeling like I am literally all by myself in the world without my Dad to exist as ‘Dad’. I know I’m a father, of course, but I still don’t think of myself as ‘Dad’…or rather as the original ‘Dad’. That name still conjures up images of my Dad…not me. I’m still ‘the son’ in my thinking, and I was relying on his presence in this world as that behind which I could in a sense hide to cover my insecurities as a father.

I have thought recently about Elijah’s exclamation in 1 Kings 19 where he is on the run from Jezebel and he eventually despairs, calls for death, and utters, “I am not better than my fathers!” Whatever the implications were for his specific cultural and historical context, it’s evident that he was carrying in some respect the weight of the burden of feeling as though he needed to measure up to the precedent set by the elders. I myself often feel this tension; almost every day, I’m haunted by whether I’m parenting right, whether I’m doing enough, whether I’m executing the role of father in a manner worthy of the legacy established by my dad, and his dad. With my father’s death, this accusatory voice has intensified. Am I worthy to wear the mantle, ‘Dad’?

When my younger daughter awoke me asking me to read Peppa Pig, she affirmed, or rather God affirmed through her, that I am worthy. Not because of me, but because of the grace of Jesus Christ (cf. Philippians 3:9). That same grace was at work that morning showing me the picture of new life springing up whence you know not or expect. You see, our daughter has had to overcome academic challenges with which her siblings have not had to struggle. Seeing her that morning recognizing and enunciating words was a surprising miracle…it was the effervescent fragrance of life in a circumstance where the specter of death was lingering. It was one of several reminders I would receive that grace reigns where it apparently doesn’t, that hope remains where despair persists, that a Christmas marked by the news of death could resemble the time of year we celebrate the news of Christ’s resurrection.

We decided to take the kids to the park since 50-degree weather in December is a rare gift of grace we dared not squander. While the kids ran back and forth testing their new walkie talkies, enthralled in makeshift wilderness adventures, I noticed something distinct about the grove of trees and encompassing nature trails that partially border the park. In the midst of the semicircle of dead trees stood out one tree that had refused to shed its leaves, but instead boldly maintained the semblance of life as it yet retained an auburn-crimson hue. If I were superstitious, I would say it was an omen, much like the trail-marker we saw indicating the life-cultivating properties of a dead tree.

I thought about my conversation with my daughter, about the dead rising again, about the hope we have in the resurrection. I thought about my dad, straddling two realms. I thought about how much it hurt that the kids couldn’t have Grandpa with them in this moment. I thought about how my dad was on his way out, yet the kids are here, with their whole lives ahead of them. I thought about how my dad is dying, yet he has lived his life. I thought about how the man I knew as Dad is gone. I mean, even if he made it out of the coma, his quality of life would be poor. Even though after each of the previous cardiac arrests, Dad was able to be revived in an alert and responsive state (something the medical professionals said they’d never seen before), there’s something about your heart stopping a dozen times that takes its toll on your body. His kidneys were virtually shut down, the doctors had installed a pacemaker as a last ditch effort, his chest was banged up from all the CPR compressions, and he was apparently losing some of his motor skills. I was torn. I wanted my dad here in this world with me, with us, but not in this condition. I wanted him to enter into the rest that consummates in eternity, but I didn’t want him to die (if that makes any sense).

I thought about how Dad has lived a full life. We have ours still to live. We have new stories to create, fresh chapters to write, misadventures upon which to embark. I thought about that present moment with my children. I thought about the irony that I began the decade saying hello to my first child, yet I concluded it by saying goodbye to my dad.

While the kids with carefree abandon played up and down the nature trails inhabiting the magical world of their imaginations, I sensed the weight of the mandate to ‘enjoy this moment right here’. I couldn’t do anything more for my dad, I couldn’t bring him back, but I could seize this time with my children. I could live in the ‘precious present’. Yet it occurred to me this was vain, too, since I couldn’t fully engage the moment because, despite my best efforts to put everything in God’s hands, I couldn’t not be distracted by the reality that my dad could die at any minute. Furthermore, this present moment I so desperately want to capture is going away as immediately as it arrives. This time of freedom, play, being with my kids, appreciating them ‘now…because they grow up so fast’, this time to which I’m clinging will be a mere memory one day.

I’m like Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration, standing in the presence of pure grace as law and gospel are being perfectly divided before him. Instead of passively hearing and receiving the grace God is delivering, he wants to capitalize on the experience and turn the passive reception of God’s good gifts into a Kodak moment. I wanted to hold that moment with my hands, romanticize it, and make it into a nostalgic memory to later cherish in scrap books, photo albums, and reminiscence. I was trying to reconcile the pain, humiliation, and frustration of facing my dad’s death by attempting to redeem the time…and myself. I was forgetting that I have been redeemed apart from anything I can do to self justify…including my best efforts to ‘live in the moment’. Whether I relive classic memories of my dad or create new ones with my kids, I’m still attempting to author my own narrative…when in Christ, God has already inscribed me into His.

Dad died on December 30th, at about 7:00pm. After three family meetings with the doctors, the decision was made to wean him off the ventilator, as there was nothing more the medical professionals could do for him. Three hours earlier that day, I called Mom, and comforted her. She had been with Dad in the Madison, Wisconsin, hospital where he spent his remaining days. She had inadvertently perfected the picture of marriage. She and Dad met in 1966 and later married in Madison in 1968, and though in many ways, the story of their marriage was far from ideal, I bet neither one of them imagined that fifty-one years after exchanging vows, Mom who over the years, had an unusual way of showing her love for Dad (she complained about him as much as she validated he was a good provider), would be sitting at his bedside in a Madison hospital, stroking his hand, praying for him as he lay comatose.

My big brother, the firstborn son, was there with them also, and so the circle was now complete: Mom and Dad had begun our family at St Mary’s hospital in Madison in 1969, my dad likely being the first person my older brother met as he came into the world. Fifty years later, my brother would be the last person with whom my dad would have a conversation, as he left this world. “Did you watch football today?” were his last known words shortly before he suffered his final and ultimately fatal cardiac arrest.

Mom needed comfort, and on the day before New Year’s Eve, I shared with her that dad had imparted himself to me before he left, so he’s not really gone. I reminded her that I have his same pot belly (in my case due to wine, beer, and hamburgers); in the last five years, I’ve had to begin wearing glasses that aren’t dissimilar to Dad’s signature specs; I ride the exact same bus route to work and I observe the same bizarre theatrical episodes Dad used to love to tell us about when he got from work every evening; I have the same nerdy, socially awkward mannerisms, and just like Daddy, I talk out of my head while sleeping at night (two weeks ago, I woke up screaming because aliens were abducting me, kind of like the time years ago when Dad came running out of our parents’ bedroom because demons were tossing him back and forth).

I gave Mom the same consolation I had given my daughter Christmas night. I told her it’s going to hurt for a long while, but God is going to bring us through it. The 23rd Psalm reminds us we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, in victory. As such, it’s only the shadow of death, because in Jesus, death has lost its sting, the grave has lost its power. We will see Dad again, but that won’t be the point. We await the resurrection because we will see Jesus. Our sorrow will be gone because our idolatrous addiction to ourselves will be gone. God Himself will be our God and He will wipe away every tear that we can’t. We can’t free ourselves from the self-righteousness that makes life here so miserable. Dad’s free. He’s free from his suffering, he’s free from his earthly body that has now been ‘sown in weakness‘. Most importantly, he’s completely free from sin!

At 7:15pm, my little brother called me to confirm that dad had died peacefully after the respirator was turned off. Incidentally, at 7:30pm, snow finally began to fall. If I were superstitious, I would say this was an omen, but since I’m not, I’ll just say, It Is Finished. Because in a season of grief like this, that’s all I know.