November 1, 1999, was the day they rolled my dad out of his condo. It was the day my life was no longer the same. Since the day I was born, my world has always been a place that included Don Staires. Now that world no longer exists.
No matter who you are, death will affect you. Death may be commonplace in hospitals and war zones, but for most of us, death is a strange unwelcome visitor, who simply barges into our house, eats our food, plops his feet up on the furniture and decides to stay awhile.When “death out there” becomes “death in here,” the pain moves in for good.
I got the phone call from my sister at 9:00 that Monday morning. I felt like I’d been dropped into freezing water. I was paralyzed and unable to make a decision. He’s gone. My Dad is gone, and he’s never coming back.
My first real experience with “death in here” came with my wife’s mother Ann. We were called to the house when the family felt her time was near. I can still remember the oppressive feeling of intrusion I felt, as I stood quietly in the doorway. Bill, my father-in-law, was reclining at the head of the bed with his head near Ann’s shoulder. He was whispering quietly in her ear, and I was halted by the intimacy—stunned by the courage I was witnessing.
As I stood there, it occurred to me what he was doing. He was bravely coaching his wife in death. As I leaned in, I could hear his words, “There you go Ann … you can see Jesus … He’s sitting on His throne. He’s reaching out his hand. Now, just take His hand Annie. Take His hand.”
Here was a woman, a family, staring death in the face. Where was the fear? Where was the uncertainty or the helplessness so often present at death’s bedside? I watched as the love of her life lay next to her, coaching her through the first baby steps into the other side.
I got to spend the day with my dad on Thursday, just four days before his death. We went together, just the two of us, to Oklahoma City for a family function. It was the first time in a long time that I’d spent that much time alone with the man. I was new to the role of primary care-giver.
My dad’s body carried the war wounds from his battle with “The Big Three”: heart disease, prostate cancer and diabetes. His chest bore the sternum scar from two open-heart surgeries. On his hip were the small tattoos the radiologist used to sight in the radiation, carpet-bombing his prostate. He’d lost both of his legs below the knee to diabetes and was, for the most part, restricted to his electric cart.
That night, on the way home in the car, I wondered, Did he feel death just four days away? Did he feel “death in here” closing in?
When I arrived at the condo on the day my dad died, I was able to take some time to say good-bye. I quietly went into my parents’ bedroom. I stood for a while just looking at him. Then I moved up by his head and put my hand on his face. In that moment, I remembered his frustrations of a life serving others. I remembered the exhaustion his life had become. As I looked at his face, now awash with peace, I smiled. My last words to him were, “You did it. You finished the race. You can finally rest.”
When the funeral home arrived, they took the gurney into the bedroom and closed the door. In a few moments, they wheeled my dad back through the living room and out the door. He had been dead several hours by then, but I think that’s the first time his death became real to me. Now, as they wheeled him out, with the heavy green funeral home blanket draped over his head, I knew this was it. This is what death looks like.
No matter how old or how mature you are, “death in here” is always strange and mysterious. I know in my heart, my dad had left this earth to be in heaven with a loving and merciful God for all eternity. But in my head, I can only see my dad lying in a casket they are going to bury in the ground. That’s hard to grasp; it’s hard to understand.
The assumption that death is cruel is vastly understated. I was braced for the emptiness and loneliness I knew would come, and I faced them head on. But death is its most cruel weeks later when you’ve momentarily forgotten the fact that your dad is gone. I would see something that reminded me of my dad, and I would think to myself, I need to call Dad. In a flash, the pain would come, and I’d remember there would be no more phone calls, no more conversation and no more advice from my dad. His voice has grown so quiet in my memory that I can barely remember what he sounded like.
The night my mother-in-law lay dying, I was finally able to pull away from the intense intimacy. I stepped out into the living room and sat on the couch, trying to process the scene I’d just witnessed. I looked over and noticed my sister-in-law’s newborn baby lying on a blanket on the floor.
In the very next room, a family was wrestling with death, yet here in front of me was a brand new life—a life full of hope, full of promise. The enormity of the moment began to wash over me. I was witnessing the great circle of life.
The death of those close to me has spurred me on to live my life every single day. I do my best to rise above the mediocrity and apathy that creeps around me all day. I also try to achieve the bigger things and make the bigger impact. Death will come soon enough, but today I have life, and that is far more important than death will ever be.
[Michael Staires lives in Tulsa, Okla., with his wife Lainey and seven (yes seven!) children. He isa writer and storyteller. He isalso an account executive with BMC Advertising.]
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