My father had a Kawasaki Mule, an ATV he used often to ride around on his place. One of his friends had a great idea: to drive my dad’s ashes from his house up the country lane to the cemetery, aboard the Mule. My mother thought that a fitting send-off. So yesterday evening, just before six, escorted by the West Feliciana Sheriff, my son Lucas piloted to the Starhill Cemetery gates the Mule his Pawpaw taught him how to drive. Sitting next to him was Mam, his grandmother, who held the box with Paw’s ashes in her lap (a box that a woodworking neighbor made for my dad). In the back of the Mule sat all four of Paw’s granddaughters. As they topped the hill by the cemetery, they were singing “I’ll Fly Away.” I found out later they had sung it all the way from the house.
My older son Matthew and I met them at the gate. I received the box of ashes, Matt took Mam’s arm, and all of us processed solemnly to the grave. The photo above is a detail of a shot someone took from the distance. That’s Lucas in the white shirt, tall Matt with his grandmother on his arm, and me in the front.
We took our seats under the canopy, and the service began. My father was a Freemason, and had requested that his brother Masons send him off with the Masonic funeral ritual. After that, the Methodist pastor offered some beautiful words. I then stood and recited Psalm 23, which I guess is kind of a cliche, but it brought so much comfort to Daddy in his final week that I couldn’t think of anything more appropriate. That’s the great thing about Scripture and poetry: they know better than you do what to say. There are times when originality is the enemy of profundity.
Earlier in the afternoon, my mom had asked her cousin Ken Fletcher (you’ll remember him from How Dante Can Save Your Life) to play guitar and sing “I’ll Fly Away” at the funeral’s conclusion — this, because it is the song we sang the moment Paw passed. He agreed, then invited Lucas to accompany him on rhythm guitar. I don’t know how that little man, who loved Paw fiercely, found the strength to say yes, much less to do it, but Lucas joined his cousin Ken at graveside, and played his Paw into paradise. I photographed this, but I have a rule against showing my children’s faces on this blog, so you won’t see the image. Still, I look at the best shot I have, and I see the resolution on my boy’s face, and I realize just how much he grew up this past week.
We issued an open invitation to mourners to help fill in Paw’s grave if they so desired. It was not a big grave, as it only had to hold a small box of ashes. All the grandkids helped, as well as a number of people who were dear to Daddy, and even a couple of friends of mine, who came out of respect for Julie and me. Here’s Lucas in his turn:
After the grave was filled, many of the mourners met us all at my mom’s house for food, drink, and fellowship. Let me tell you, the women of the St. Francisville United Methodist Church know how to take care of folks. Hillocks of fried chicken, people! The sheriff’s department and the fire department also contributed, as did a long list of family, friends, and neighbors. It was quite an event. I didn’t see any tears, or hear a single lamentation. People loved my father deeply, and the sense I got from them most prominently was gratitude. I was able to meet Leonard Pousson, an old Coast Guard buddy of Daddy’s, who had driven in from Lake Charles for the funeral. From my childhood I had heard Daddy’s adventurous Coast Guard stories of “Pousson,” whose name had a certain magical quality in my imagination. And there he was, standing in front of me, telling me how much his friendship back in the day with my dad had meant to him.
Eventually there had to be music. Denise, the hospice nurse, brought her mandolin. Ken played guitar, and so did Lucas. Mike Leming’s brother Danny, also a guitarist, took a turn. Here’s a not-so-great shot I took of my mom and the three Leming sisters dancing to “Brown-Eyed Girl,” brown-eyed Ruthie’s favorite song:
At long last it was time to go home so Mam could get some sleep. This morning, when she woke up, Mam found folks in her house cleaning everything up and getting the place back to normal. “Can you believe how blessed I am?” she told me later. Yes, actually, I can, because that’s how it is here.
This evening Julie, the kids and I went to vespers, same as usual. We are now in the Feast of the Dormition, celebrating the dying, or “falling asleep,” of the Virgin Mary. During the service, I began thinking about what it means to experience natural death. Holding my father’s hand and looking into his face as he passed from this life into the next was the first time I had ever seen anyone die. To think that even the woman who bore God Himself in the flesh had to suffer this fate is perhaps painful to contemplate, but I found myself tonight grateful that all three of my children had been in the room to watch it happen to their grandfather. Julie and I didn’t compel them to be there; though we believe that kids should not be completely shielded from things like this, we also tried to be sensitive to our kids’ needs, and to make sure that they didn’t feel obligated to endure more than they could handle. Yet at that crucial moment, they chose to stand with others in the family, and Daddy’s friends, and to bear witness. It was surely difficult for them to watch his final agonies, but I think they managed to do it because they do not have the fear of death that I did as a child. My guess is that because we talk about death and resurrection so much in Orthodoxy, and because we have a theology of relics (as well as actual relics, including bone shards of saints, in our church), it seems more natural to them than it does to many modern Americans.
I was around Nora’s age when my grandmother died suddenly, and alone, of a heart attack. Her death was the first great trauma of my life, and I did not handle it well. Neither my sister nor I went to the funeral; our parents didn’t permit it. I don’t know why. We never talked about it. I’m sure they decided that it would be too hard on us kids. Surely theirs was a decision taken out of mercy, but it’s not one either my wife or me have ever considered doing for our kids. As horrible as death is, it is also part of life, and there are things that we all do, as members of a family, and members of a community, to mourn together. Tonight in vespers, Lucas sidled up next to me and leaned in, as he does when he feels strong emotions in church. Julie was chanting the service, and when she sang something about Christ conquering death, I whispered into Lucas’s ear, “Because Jesus did what he did, death does not get the last word. That’s why we will see Pawpaw again.” He looked up at me, flashed me a smile, and nodded.
After vespers, we drove by to check on Mam. We ate fried chicken, and heard about her day. She could not stop talking about how kind everyone has been to her. Outside the kitchen window, in the falling darkness, a herd of deer grazed, like the do every evening. For years, she and Daddy would sit out there most evenings and watch them. The deer are still there. There is comfort for her in that.
Alan Jacobs, quoting a Wesley Hill passage contrasting the serenity of Socrates’ death with the agony of Christ’s:
In sharp distinction from this portrait, for Cullmann, lies the stark horror of Jesus’ death. “In Gethsemane He knows that death stands before Him, just as Socrates expected death on his last day.” And yet the contrast between these two figures’ responses could not be greater. Whereas Socrates maintains his equilibrium, Jesus “trembles” and becomes distressed (Mark 14:33). “Jesus is so thoroughly human that He shares the natural fear of death,” says Cullmann. “Death for Him is not something divine: it is something dreadful.” It leads Jesus to offer up “loud cries and tears” (Hebrews 5:7). He utters the “cry of dereliction” from the cross (Mark 15:34), protesting death’s most pitiless feature — its insistence that each person must endure it alone, with no prospect of a reprieve or rescue. “Death in itself is not beautiful, not even the death of Jesus,” Cullmann concludes. We might well say about the four Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’s final hours what Rowan Williams once said in a slightly different context: these stories “are about difficulty, unexpected outcomes, silences, errors, about what is not readily accessible or readily understood.” That’s what death means, even for the Lord himself.
This makes me wonder if, in describing my father’s death as “peaceful,” I have downplayed the ugliness of his struggle to die. I mean, you could call it “peaceful” in that it took place at home, in bed, with friends and family surrounding him, praying for him. Certainly the effect of the way he died on those who carried him to that precipice was one of peacefulness. But if I gave you the impression that he simply closed his eyes and went to sleep, I made a mistake.
Indeed, one of the things that most struck me about attending my father in the last week of his life was how much the life he had left in him, and how much his body, broken and battered as it was, resisted death. I will not be morbid in describing what he suffered there at the last, but there was nothing beautiful in his physical agony. On the last day or two, when he was comatose, every so often a fathomless groan would arise from the depths of his body, roll through it like a temblor, and emerge from his grimacing face. I have never heard a human being make that sound.
The beauty came in that he did not suffer alone. Only he could walk that path, but we went with him as far as we could go, holding him up, encouraging him, soothing his pain with words, touch, and medicine, petitioning God on his behalf. Nothing can ever make death on its own beautiful. What he suffered was dreadful, excruciating, as ferocious life wrung his rag-like body out again and again, until the end. But he died in faith, hope, and love, in the certainty of resurrection. That changes everything.
UPDATE: I was thinking in liturgy this morning (Dormition on the Old Calendar) that watching my father’s decline was like witnessing the fall of a once-great city. We in the South are big ones for ruins, and the “long defeat” of life (the phrase is Tolkien’s) is something that we are tempted to romanticize. I hope I am not romanticizing what Daddy went through at the end. For me, and for people who hold the Christian faith, the consolation is knowing, through faith, that the death of the body is not the end of our story. It is also to know the difference between what is precious but perishable, and what is imperishable. All we have this morning of my father’s body are ashes, but his soul lives on forever. That is my faith. That is my hope.
Two short passages from Dante’s Paradiso come to mind:
It is well that endless be his grief
who, for love of things that do not last,
casts off a love that never dies.
— Paradiso XV: 10-12
And this, from St. Bernard of Clairvaux, to the pilgrim:
‘Child of grace,’ he said, ‘you will not know
this joyful state if you maintain your gaze,
instead of upward, fixed down here. …’
— Paradiso XXXI: 112-114
With me, things could have gone the way of the first verses, or by the way of the second ones. Somehow, by some divine grace, I was able to look upward and beyond, I found the strength to gaze into my father’s face as he breathed his last, and not to grieve, but to rejoice. I have lived in this joyful state all week, by the power of the love that never dies. In the liturgy today, Father Matthew, preaching about the humility of the Virgin Mary, said we so often have to endure great suffering to prepare ourselves to be sufficiently humble to receive God’s grace. This, for me, was the meaning of the last three years: to drive me to my knees, and to draw my eyes upward, so that I would be able to stand later today a free man, receiving my father’s ashes and carrying them to his grave.
We are always dying. The question is, are we being reborn?
My father chose to be cremated, as his religious tradition allows. A neighbor who is also a woodworker built the box in which Daddy will be buried, out of a stash of sinker cypress that had been excavated out of the Fancy Point swamp, where Daddy used to hunt. Because he will be interred on Friday in a small box, it was possible for us to dig his grave ourselves. This we did early this morning.
Above, an image of my two sons digging their Pawpaw’s grave, which is next to his father Murphy Sr. and mother Lorena. But they weren’t the only ones there. Old family friends from Starhill came and took their turn with the shovel and a posthole digger. With a hole as narrow as this one had to be, it wasn’t long before the posthole digger was the only useful tool left. Ever tried digging a three-foot deep hole with a posthole digger? It’s like plucking peas out of an iced tea glass with chopsticks.
Here are my boys and Steve “Big Show” Shelton, whom many of you will remember from Little Way. Oh, and there is Brutus, Ronnie Morgan’s little dog, who spent many a morning on the front porch with Daddy:
Mike Leming fashioned a metal cross yesterday to stand on Daddy’s grave, at least until we place a headstone. After we finished digging the hole, Mike placed the cross at its head:
This is a rich life we have here. All these men who loved my father, there preparing his place of final rest. Who gets to do that anymore? It’s like we live in a Wendell Berry story. We were all so tired, and the hole was just under three feet. It was suggested that this was good enough.
“Now, you know what Ray Dreher would say if he was here,” said John Bickham. “He would tell us to keep at it, because it has to be exactly three feet.”
Everybody laughed, and kept at it till we got the job just right.
That’s a photo of my father taken days before his passing. I have never seen someone suffer like he did. My sister Ruthie, who died of cancer, also suffered, but I was not living here to see it day in and day out. Neither one of them were complainers, but in fact both were Stoics. During the last week of his life, I saw my father lay on what would be his deathbed, telling people who came to see them, when they asked how he was feeling, say, “Fine,” or, “Not too bad today.” Which was nowhere near the truth, but his sense of nobility required that he respond that way. To him, complaining about suffering was undignified.
As a philosophical and theological matter, I didn’t quite agree with Daddy about the role of suffering, and how to meet it, but it was impossible not to admire — mostly — the moral courage with which he endured. I posted a photo yesterday of him as a boy; you can see in those eyes an intense determination to seize life, and wrestle it to the ground:
And here is my mother’s favorite picture of him, as a Coast Guardsman in the 1950s. The photo’s resolution isn’t great, but you can see the indomitable confidence in his face:
One of the things I admired most about my dad was his doggedness, his sheer unwillingness to accept defeat. Alas, it was also a tragic flaw; he believed that there was nothing he could not conquer by force of will. Often he was right. But not always, and in those times, not without cost.
Since his passing yesterday, several of us, including my mom, have observed that it is such a relief to see him free from the misery of his body. A couple of weeks ago, Mom was near tears, talking about how hard it is to see a man who once rode bucking broncos struggle to stand up long enough to be guided to his wheelchair. In American culture, we don’t know how to deal well with frailty. My dad, in his youth, could have been a recruiting poster model for the US armed forces. Have you ever seen a more American face than the one above, of the Coast Guardsman? The vigor, the freshness, the optimism.
For my dad, every day he could not go outside and do something was a humiliation. About two weeks before he died, I heard him telling some visitors that he hoped to build his strength back up so he could get out of the house and onto his Mule, a small farm truck, and ride to his back acreage to check on his pine trees. In his final days, he told me once, from his hospital bed, that he needed to exercise his arms so he could regain strength in them. I thought: Are you kidding? He wasn’t.
Daddy was one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever known, but he distrusted contemplation. He was a man of action. Indeed, his entire sense of self depended on his ability to do things. Ray Dreher housebound and bedridden was not Ray Dreher at all, not in his mind. His greatest suffering, I think, was his loss of identity. This is something that was hard for me to understand, until I thought how different I would be if I lost my ability to read and write. It is impossible to conceive of myself in that mode of living. Would it be living at all? When I thought of my dad’s physical decline in that way, it made sense to me, and made me more compassionate. The idea of spending my old age in my armchair with a book in my lap sounds like paradise, but to him, it was a kind of hell.
Daddy felt useless, and in a different culture, this would have tempted him to euthanasia. Nearly everything that gave his life meaning had been taken from him. He could not stand to be dependent on anybody, for anything, but in the last period of his life, he could not do anything on his own. Why did he not kill himself? Perhaps it was out of Christian conviction, but I think it’s closer to the truth to say that he thought it would be the coward’s way out. Better to bear it till the end. And that he did. Several times over this, the last week of his life, I stood at the foot of his bed, reciting Psalm 90, and stopping over these lines:
The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.
He was eighty, and indeed the final decade of his life was toil and travail. Yet he endured, as a good Stoic would. What he could not see — maybe because Southern culture is traditionally more Stoic than Christian — is that he was not useless to the rest of us. His utility was in giving us a chance to serve him.
Father Matthew, my priest, likes to say that living in community causes us to rub the rough edges off of each other. This is true. Daddy was not easy to care for, even though he was not a complainer. He could be demanding, and gruff; my mom bore the brunt of this. It wasn’t that he was ungrateful, not at all, but that it grieved him to have to depend on the charity of others. Maybe, though, the Lord used this to free his soul from its pride. I know he used it to free me to some extent from mine. I count it one of the great privileges of my life to have been able to live with him on his last eight days on earth, and to sleep right beside him, helping him with all his needs, and giving my mom a break. (I should note here that his devoted friend John Bickham was heroic in his service to my dad and mom, doing far more than I did, or could have done.) As longtime readers know, I had to undergo a difficult purgation of my own pride and anger before I was ready to serve Daddy, but it is hard to put into words how grateful I am for that cross, so that I could be present to receive all the graces I did from my dad this last week of his life. The new chapter I will be able to write for the paperback edition of How Dante Can Save Your Life will tell this story, and bring it all to a close. As it turns out, the greatest gift my father gave me in life was the opportunity to help him when he was helpless, to suffer with him, to pray with him, to give him the medicines that helped him, to moisten his mouth when he could no longer swallow, and to pour myself out for him as I was seeing others, especially John Bickham, do.
If anyone thinks of the sick, the elderly, or the infirm as useless — or if they think of themselves as useless — send them to me. They are gifts to the rest of us to make us more compassionate, and more Christ-like, therefore more human. It was hard to look upon the wreckage of my once-handsome, once-strong father’s body as he lay dying this past week, but it was also a lesson in humanity, and a lesson in divinity. And it was a lesson that my action-hero daddy taught me about the value of not simply thinking about things, but acting on those thoughts.
I thought more than once over the past week, sitting at my dad’s bedside, about the example of Pope St. John Paul II, who bore his own physical suffering bravely and publicly. In his 1984 letter on the meaning of suffering, he said that suffering is a mystery, the answer to which is … love. This is the meaning of the Cross. As the Pope wrote:
Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: ‘Follow me!’ Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world….Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him.
As Daddy drew his final agonized breaths, I held his hand and looked into his face. It was the only thing I saw, and in it, I saw the face of Christ. More importantly, I saw him, not as the man of whom I was in awe, the man whom I sometimes hated, the man with whose difficult legacy I wrestled in my heart for decades, but him as a fellow sinner and sufferer, and poor creature who needed my love as surely as I needed his. Death humbles us all. That hand of his that held me as a helpless baby, I held myself when his soul left his helpless body. There is perfect harmony in this, a harmony rightly divided and bound together by love — the love that moves the Sun and all the other stars.
My final words to my father were, “Thank you, old man, for everything.” They may be the truest words I ever spoke to him.
UPDATE: The previous entries in this series, in order:
Daddy died at home in Starhill this afternoon, just before four. It was a beautiful death. Mama was holding his right hand, and I was holding his left. He was surrounded by friends and family. As he drew his final breaths, Hannah had us pray the Our Father. We told him we loved him, and he gave up his spirit. A more appropriate passing for that old country man is inconceivable. He left this world only two hours from the hilltop on which he entered it. When Father Matthew and Anna Harrington came to visit him last night, Father kissed him on the forehead and said, “Thank you, Mister Ray, for showing us how to live in Louisiana.” Yep.
From The Little Way of Ruthie Leming:
The boys were born at home in the teeth of the Great Depression. Everyone was poor. You had no choice but to rely on your neighbors. When our father was very small, his house burned to the ground during the night. My paternal grandparents were virtually penniless, but that didn’t matter. The men of Starhill came to their aid, and built the Drehers another cottage.
Murphy was away from home for much of the boys’ childhood, on the road, working, sending money back to his family. Murphy Jr. and Ray learned to hunt and fish, which often meant the difference between having meat on the table, or not. Many nights, dinner was cornbread soaked in buttermilk. Murphy Jr. teased little Ray unceasingly, even though Ray was stronger. Clever Murphy knew how to set his brother off. It was too much for my grandmother Lorena to handle. She finally bought two pairs of boxing gloves, and would send the boys outside to settle their differences.
As they grew older, the brothers did not grow closer. Clever Murphy Jr. was a peerless prankster, a dubious gift that often got him into fights on the schoolyard and, later, in barroom parking lots. Ray, a fiery redhead whose hard work raising cattle made him strong as a bull, always fought for his brother -‐-‐ even when Murphy Jr., the provocateur extraordinaire, had a beating coming to him. For Ray, nothing was more important than family loyalty.
“That’s how it was with Murphy and me,” he tells me. “One time up at the old Julius Freyhan school in town, Murphy got into it with Talmadge Bickham. When I saw Murphy in trouble, I ran over there and started whipping on Talmadge. That was my big brother, even though he was as mean as hell to me.”
Ray was the first in his family to go to college, though against his will. He wanted to be outside, building things and working with his cows. But after returning from a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard, Lorena insisted that her son take advantage of the G.I. Bill and enter Louisiana State University. In 1958, while working on a degree in rural sociology, Paw bought 67 acres in Starhill from Aunt Em Simmons, Uncle Clint’s widow – the asking price was forty dollars an acre -‐-‐ and began small-‐scale farming. He also started a job as the parish sanitarian, which, in a rural parish like West Feliciana, meant he was not only the health inspector, but often the public official who helped impoverished families get running water and sewerage into their houses.
Dorothy, Ruthie’s and my mother, moved to town with her family from Mississippi at age 11, when her father took a job at a sweet potato canning plant. She was nine years younger than Ray. One day in 1962, he walked into Robb’s Drugstore, and was startled to learn that the beautiful young woman behind the counter was Dorothy Howard, all grown up. They began courting, and married in the summer of 1964.
Dorothy and Ray – Mam and Paw, as everyone calls them now – built their Starhill house when I was two years old. It sat in an open field at the edge of a pasture where Paw grazed his cattle herd. Paw would raise his children in the country, a mile as the crow flies from where he had grown up. His parents, Murphy and Lorena, still lived in the old cottage on Highway 61, and Murphy Jr. was raising his family across the road from them.
The point is, Starhill was where all the Drehers lived. There were fields and forests everywhere. For us, going to town meant driving the six miles north on Highway 61, in those days a two-‐lane blacktop, to St. Francisville. Baton Rouge, 30 miles in the other direction, was an exotic journey. New Orleans, an hour and a half further downriver, might as well have been Paris.
And, when he confesses to me about his disappointments in life, because he gave up everything for family and place, because he thought it would all work out for him — but it did not:
I sat there across from him as he spoke, imagining that stout, barrel-‐chested boy of 12 who was my father, riding high on his little tractor, a shock of fiery orange, cowlicked hair jammed under a straw cowboy hat, dragging a plow across a Starhill field, laying the groundwork for what he thought would be an empire. He would have his family and he would be loved and respected by them all, and everything would work out the way it was supposed to because that’s how things turn out for good men who do right, stay loyal, and follow the rules.
It did not work out for him as he hoped. But as my mother said to him as she kissed his craggy face for the last time, “We had a good life together.”
And we had a good death together with him. For me, it was only possible because I listened to Dante, and I listened to Father Matthew, my confessor. From How Dante Can Save Your Life:
After vespers one warm October night, I took my spiteful passions to Father Matthew in confession.
“I know my anger is wrong, and that’s why I’m in confession,” I said. “I realized, reading Dante this week, that I resented all of them for being happy without us. I know it’s not right, but I can’t get out from under this anger.”
I explained that I felt like I was living the prodigal son parable, but in this telling, the father is not running out to welcome the long-lost son but rather taking the side of the bitter older brother and not letting the younger one come through the gate.
“That’s tough,” Father Matthew said. “So what do you want?”
“I want justice. It’s not fair, the way they do me.”
“You want justice?” he said, chuckling. “What is justice? You have no right to
expect justice. It’s nice if you get it, but if you don’t, that doesn’t release you from the commandment to love. The elder brother in the prodigal son story stood on justice, but his father stood on love.”
“Okay, but I think that if I do that, they’re going to win.”
“Win? This is a contest, Benedict?” he said. “I don’t know about you, but from where I sit, it doesn’t look to me like you’re winning much of anything by hanging on to all of this.”
“I know,” I sighed. “All I can do is lay this at the foot of the Cross and ask for God’s help.”
And He helped me. He healed me. And because of the healing love He gave to me — through the Church, through my wife, through my priest, through my therapist, and through Dante’s imperishable verse, I could be by my dad’s side on the final week of his life, comforting him, serving him, praying with him and for him, thanking him for all he did for me, and telling him how much I love him. There was no anger, no regrets, no I-wish-I-had-saids. Only love and peace, here at the last. That is a surprise ending.
A friend texts tonight:
I keep thinking these months have been the conclusion of Little Way. They round out the story, previously jagged and unsettled, with peace. That story has finally found its ending, one in which the Lord triumphs. Love conquers bitterness and pain.
Readers of Little Way will recall that my sister Ruthie and our father loved to spend time on his pond together, fishing. And they loved hunting deer together. This afternoon, within an hour of Paw’s passing, our cousin Jake, who loved him fiercely, drove his pick-up to the pond just to look at it and remember him. As he sat quietly in his truck, he saw two deer emerge from the woods on the other side of the pond. They strode to the edge of the water, drank together, and then grazed on the levee, in the quiet of a late summer evening.
Daddy is still here. Unconscious, but not entirely. You think he’s just laying there, eyes closed, in a coma-like state, but then he will murmur something to let you know that he’s not completely lost in the fog. He let my cousin Jake know that yes, as a matter of fact, he did want Jake to help bust him out of here and take him fishing.
Late in the afternoon, my mother held the framed photograph of my late sister Ruthie up for him, and he stared at it, and even held it in his hand for a while. It was a moment of almost unbearable beauty. He tried to speak, but it wasn’t clear what he was attempting to communicate. She told him it was okay to go, to go to God, to go to Ruthie. I said the same into his ear. We have been telling him this all day: We love you, but you are free to go.
On Tuesday afternoon, as I update this, he can no longer open his eyes.
Daddy’s home hospice nurse, Denise, is one of the more wonderful people on the planet. She is what they used to call a dame — and coming from me, that’s a compliment. She’s got a low voice and a raspy, whiskey-cured Southern accent that’s all Elizabeth Ashley in scrubs. I keep expecting her to step out of nurse mode and ask me for a toddy. Our whole family has fallen madly in love with her, because there is nothing she won’t do for my dad. Last week, when he had a scary coughing fit at 10pm, she got dressed and drove out to the country to help, a journey that was two hours, round trip. That’s the kind of person she is. Last night, after she finished her nurse duties, she went to the living room, borrowed a guitar from my son Lucas, took it to my dad’s bedside, and began playing and singing “I’ll Fly Away.”
My mom, who was sitting next to her, and who has a beautiful singing voice, joined in. Before you knew it, most of the people in the front of the house had stepped away from their fried chicken and peach cobbler to follow the sound of the guitar. And there we all were, singing “I’ll Fly Away,” and then “Amazing Grace,” and then “Brown-Eyed Girl,” which was Ruthie and Mike’s favorite song. The loudest voice in the room belonged to their daughter Hannah, who drove in lickety-split from California to be here for Paw’s final days. I cried my eyes out. Seven days of living at Daddy’s side, praying long stretches of Psalms and acres of petitions and praises from a prayerbook had been so solemn and worthy, but the music, man, it just drew me out and broke me down. I was reminded of this moment with Lucas at the Avett Brothers concert in town in 2013:
My son Lucas, who is nine, is the only one of my children who is musically inclined. He’s just like his uncle, Jud, who is a natural musician. I hear Lucas in the living room noodling around on the piano, and boy, does he ever have the gift. So we were standing in the darkness under the moon and the pine trees tonight, with the band about half an hour into their set, and Lucas was in front of me, and then he turns and plants his head into my chest, sobbing, saying, “I didn’t think I would love it like this.”
The power of music. I had tears too, thinking about how those chords, those harmonies, that power on the stage moved a little boy to tears. He couldn’t talk about it. All throughout the show, he was so moved he couldn’t speak, or even look at me. We’ve been home for an hour, and he still can’t talk about it. He’s going to be a musician one day, I know it.
Later, after everyone but Jake and my wife Julie had left the room, I mentioned to Jake that for me, the perfect song for this moment would be the Rolling Stones’ “Shine A Light.” A moment later, I heard its opening chord coming from Jake’s smartphone. These lines reduced me once again to tears:
Angels beating all their wings in time,
With smiles on their faces and a gleam right in their eyes.
Whoa, thought I heard one sigh for you,
Come on up, come on up, now, come on up now.
May the good Lord shine a light on you,
Make every song you sing your favorite tune.
May the good Lord shine a light on you,
Warm like the evening sun.
In the living room a few minutes later, seeing Lucas struggling mightily with what’s happening to his grandfather, I took him into a bedroom, laid down with him on the bed, held him close, and talked about music. Angels beating all their wings in time — that’s what the experience of our songs at Paw’s bedside had been like. I pointed out to Lucas how moved everyone had been by the music, and how music can express things that words cannot. Lucas — who, by the way, is at his weekly guitar lesson as I type this — is really good at music; I told him that God had given him this gift to serve Him and to serve others, by saying through his music things that are in their own hearts, but for which they lack the words. That seemed to move him, and to confirm him in some way. Lucas is one of those kids who feels best when he is helping others. When I made the connection for him between making music and helping, it was like a light went off in his mind.
When we stood up to leave the room, I noticed that he was wearing his now-faded Avett Brothers concert t-shirt. Seemed fitting.
We are very, very close to the end now. Thanks for all your prayers and the kind words you have said here in these comment threads, and that you’ve sent to me privately. I don’t have time to answer any of you personally, but know that I am reading them, and am consoled by them. I even received a note from Father Benedict at the monastery in Norcia, who said he and the monks were praying for Daddy. Man, just think of it. All these people around the world who know Paw from my books and this blog, lifting him up in prayer, and here in this house in the valley of the shadow of death, all this love, and laughter through the tears, and music. And bright-shining light.
I always knew I would hate the death of my father. But I didn’t know I would love it like this too.
We are losing him, and losing him fast. On Friday evening, I recorded my father making short video postcards to send to his granddaughters Hannah and Claire, who were both on the road, coming to his bedside to tell him goodbye. His voice was fragile, but his mind was clear. “I love you with all my heart,” he said to them, “and I can’t wait to see you.”
On Saturday morning, he awoke speaking out of his head. It wasn’t him anymore, but like a dreamer, talking in his sleep. Word got out that Ray was fading, and close friends and family began streaming in. I’m not sure how much of this he was aware of, because he was going in and out of the mist all day. Folks came to tell him goodbye.
At day’s end, one of his oldest and closest friends brought him a homemade chocolate pie, his favorite. Daddy was alert and able to eat three bites — the only food he consumed all day. He said, “That was the best filling I ever ate in my life.” It was possible to believe it was true.
Claire arrived, and was grieved to the point of sobbing that her Paw could not be awakened to talk to her. But later in the evening, he came around, and they spent time together. After supper, I asked her if she wanted to pray at his bedside with me. “I was hoping you would ask,” she said. And so we went into his bedroom, shut the door, and began our prayers.
After we prayed for a while, I asked Claire to forgive me all the things I had done to her to cause such hard-heartedness in our family. Claire is a serious, observant Christian, and asked me the same thing. We talked about why our family is broken, and how neither one of us wanted to live this way. It was such a moment of healing grace. Paw was in and out of consciousness, and murmured that his legs hurt. I retrieved a bottle of lotion, and each of us took one of his bare, cool feet, and rubbed the sweet-smelling ointment into his skin.
“Ohhhh, that feels so good,” he said.
We sat with him a while longer, telling him how much we loved him, and thanking him for all he has done for us. Claire held his hand, which he squeezed tightly. I am fascinated by his mottled, craggy hands. “Daddy, I bless your hands,” I told him. “Those hands built this house. Those hands tilled the soil on our land. Those hands split the wood that kept us warm in the winter. Those hands held Ruthie and me when we were little, and they have held all six of your grandchildren.”
His eyes did not open, but I am sure he heard me. At one point, I had to stand at the head of his bed and reposition the oxygen tube in his nose. As I leaned in close, I said the psalm in his ear: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want… .” I continued, and saw his lips moving as I recited. Claire’s eyes widened; even through the fog of death, Paw was praying the 23rd Psalm. The grace of that moment! I cannot do it justice.
He opened his eyes at last, and we talked a little bit about Ruthie, whose photo sits beside his bed. “What are you going to say to her when you see her?” I asked.
“Hello, sugar, how you been doin’?” he rasped. “What can I do for you?”
Claire nearly laughed out loud. “Isn’t that just like him?” I said.
“It’s just like him,” she agreed.
It finally was time to let Paw rest, so we stood, and embraced at his bedside, vowing to let Jesus Christ be the mortar that holds us together, and to walk out of this room starting anew. Such a blessing, I can’t even tell you.
Hannah arrived from California sometime late in the night, and she and Mam stayed up till five a.m. talking. All day Sunday has seen another parade of people, this time mostly family members, coming to say goodbye. We are at the stage now where the only thing we can do is to keep him comfortable until the end, which is coming very soon. It has been a very south Louisiana day here. People showing up with fried chicken, roast pork loin, pulled pork, desserts, and such. I have been my father’s Jeeves, taking people back to see him. He has been surprisingly lucid today. One of the folks who came by later in the day, when I announced her, he said, “Darlin’, I love you so much. It is so good to have friends.”
Isn’t it just? So many of these men who have filed in and out these past two days I saw as a small boy, standing in the kitchen in their camo gear, after deer hunting. I have smelled fish on their pants and crawfish boil on their fingers, all in the company of Daddy. And now, here they are, at the end of his life, all of them balder, grayer, more stooped, paying respect.
Because this is south Louisiana, I have been mixing drinks all day for folks, making sure everyone is happy and filled with good food and cheer. At dusk, my mom, who has been under such intense stress for so long, and who had had one of my frozen concoctions, was dancing in the living room with Hannah, singing “Stand By Me” while Lucas played the tune on his guitar. Before Claire left to go back to boarding school, we took a photo of all six of Paw’s grandchildren, standing with him at the top of his bed, like the crown of a mighty oak.
What is happening is a thing of great and terrible beauty. In death, there is life, even new life. Several of us are keeping vigil throughout the night at his bedside.
He wanted to die at home. He is dying at home. He was born at home, in a cottage two miles from where he will breathe his last. He lived among the people who came to see him these past two days, and lay dying in their presence. No one should romanticize death, and no one who has had to witness the inexorable breakdown of my proud daddy’s body would be at risk for it. Still, when I die, I hope I am granted the mercy of passing as my father will have done: at home, surrounded by friends, family, and those who love me, and whom I have loved.
(I will never be able to say it often enough: home hospice care is a gift of God.)
Anyway, in Starhill right now, we are practicing how to die well here, and in so doing, we are also practicing resurrection.
UPDATE: It’s Monday morning, and he is still here, unconscious but holding on. We have told him how much we love him, and how he needs to let go, and to go to God. He is at peace, and in no pain. Thanks for your prayers.
The two American service members who tackled a gunman on ahigh-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris rushed him even though he was fully armed, then grabbed him by the neck and beat him over the head with his own automatic rifle until he was unconscious, one of them said in television interviews here on Saturday.
The suspect entered the train car carrying an AK-47 and a handgun, according to the Americans. “I looked over at Spencer and said, ‘Let’s go,’” said one of them, Alek Skarlatos, identified as an Oregon National Guardsman returning from Afghanistan. With him was Spencer Stone, a friend and a member of the Air Force. “And he jumped, I followed behind him by about three seconds. Spencer got the guy first, grabbed the guy by the neck, I grabbed the handgun,” Mr. Skarlatos said.
The Pentagon confirmed the Americans’ identities.
The suspect wounded at least one passenger before the two men subdued him, and their quick action averted what officials said could have been a blood bath. On Saturday morning the French news media, government and social media praised their actions, and President Obama also hailed their bravery.
“Let’s go!” Sounds like Todd Beamer’s “Let’s roll!” God bless those American servicemen, the Todd Beamers of the Thalys train, who ran towards danger. I trust that the French will feed them very, very well.
I watched Fox News’s live coverage of Donald Trump’s rally in Mobile tonight. My mother, who watched it with me, said to my father, “He reminds me of Huey” — meaning Huey P. Long, the former populist governor of our fair state. She meant this entirely as a compliment, and declared herself a Trump voter.
I get the Trump phenomenon mo’ better now. I really do. The guy, first and foremost, is a massive egotist, and completely shameless — but then, he always has been. Within the first five minutes in Alabama, he had praised Billy Graham, and denounced an illegal immigrant who had SODOMIZED, TORTURED and KILLED an old lady who was a VETERAN, if you can believe it!
I was thinking: what the hell is this? Do politicians in America running for national office really say this? Then again, on the pre-game show, so to speak, Tucker Carlson was talking about Trump and the immigration issue with a Latina journalist, and she was horrible. All she could say in response to serious, legitimate concerns about anchor babies and the like was, in effect, “Bigot, bigot, bigot!”
Let me be perfectly clear: Trump is a demagogue, and I would never vote for him. Watching his speech, I shook my head, astonished that anybody would brag so much about himself, and present himself as the most arrogant son of a bitch in the room — and this, as his basic platform! Yet I thought: on some of this stuff, he’s right. He is a complete cartoon of an American capitalist, and is preaching a form of nationalism so crude you cannot believe this guy is for real. Yet it is obvious why it’s working. I laughed and inwardly cheered for him when he blasted his GOP opponents as people who have to consult with their pollsters before they say a word. Trump is an ass, and he doesn’t care. There is something I grudgingly respect about that.
Again: he’s a demagogue, and he will never have my vote. But having watched his rally tonight, and been equally disgusted and fascinated, I know much better why he’s doing so well. His basic pitch is: the world is run by assholes, and I’m a bigger asshole than everybody else, so I’m going to negotiate a better deal for America. Who could fail to laugh when he made fun of John Kerry as being a bicycle-riding flake who got taken for a ride by the Iranians? You’re like: are you for real? Which is part of the Joy of Trump Thought. When he made fun of the two GOP presidential candidates from Florida, Rubio and Bush, whose rear ends he is currently kicking in the polls, I thought, “Good for you.” I felt kind of embarrassed by that, but mostly not really. He is an unholy fool, Donald Trump, and is a guilty, Prytania-like pleasure to watch on the stump. It’s like the World Wrestling Federation. I would go to a Donald rally, just because, well, he reminds me of what I know of Huey, and of Earl K. Long, laying into his opponent DeLesseps “Chep” Morrison — “Dellasoups,” he called him — the mayor of New Orleans, mocked by Uncle Earl as a hapless snotty-tot. Saints preserve me, it is a sick delight to savor Donald Trump — big-mouth Yankee oligarch! — playing the Uncle Earl role in this race. “Boisterous, uncouth, and truculent,” the New York Times Magazine called Uncle Earl — words they could accurately use to describe El Trumpo. Henceforth, I shall refer to Jeb! as Dellasoups.
Uncle Chuckie, this Republican primary is for you.
We were talking earlier this week about the queasy-making but documentably real phenomenon of horrific catastrophes unexpectedly resulting in good outcomes for certain individuals. The catalyst was the finding by social scientists that there are quite a few people driven out of New Orleans by Katrina who consider it a blessing, because it lifted them out of a terrible rut in the Crescent City.
In that same general genre, 9/11 was Charles Featherstone’s Katrina, in that it saved him from his own consuming anger resulting from a cruel childhood, and terrible experiences of injustice — an anger that found expression in militant Islam. Longtime readers of this blog know Charles’s story, first told here, and then later in a terrific memoir, The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus In The Midst of Terror and Death.
Now, Charles tells his conversion story in the current issue of Christianity Today. Excerpts:
Some people look to faith for ideas of right and wrong, or some understanding of good and evil, or a set of principles with which to order the world. Not me. What I sought, what I ached for, was meaning and belonging. And Islam gave me both.
There is much I keep from that time as a Muslim. The Qur’an teaches that God gives freely to all creation, believers and unbelievers alike, and it is best to respond with thankfulness and wonder. And Muslims in America live their faith with tremendous courage in the face of a frequently hostile culture.
But Islam also provided religious and political fuel for my anger. At one mosque where I worshiped during the early 1990s, I fell in with a group of jihadis.
Later, he was working in downtown Manhattan on that day, and it happened, and a voice spoke to him. More:
At this point in my story, if you are looking for a rationale for why I turned to Christ, well, there isn’t one. This wasn’t an act of reason on my part. What happened was a cataclysm, the kind of divine intervention that drove Abraham to leave home, trusting in God’s promises. The kind of force that struck Saul blind on the road to Damascus
Read the whole thing — and, if you haven’t done so, buy Charles’s book. I’m telling you, this thing is a spiritual classic. It is a scandal that it has not gone to the top of the Christian bestseller list.
The headline for the CT piece is “Saved From Islam on September 11.” I winced a little when I read that, because having read Charles’s book, he looks on Islam in a more kindly way than the headline suggests. Nevertheless, the headline is accurate, if blunt, because it is true that all Christian converts are saved “from” some form of unbelief. If I were a Muslim, I would look at converts to Islam from Christianity as being saved “from” Christianity, because they are passing form unbelief in what I believed with all my heart to be the true faith to belief in the true faith.
Still, reading the headline, I thought about how sad I was years ago to read a story in The New York Times about survivors of the Rwanda genocide, in which Christians slaughtered Christians, converting to Islam because they had lost their faith in Christianity after living through mass murder by their co-religionists. I mean, I believed (and do believe) that those apostate Christians forsook Jesus Christ, and therefore the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I do believe that God will have special mercy on them, given what they endured. That said, it grieved me as a Christian to read quotes from Rwandan ex-Christians talking about how they had been saved from Christianity, which, in their view, had brought such a curse of violence and hatred to their land, or at least had failed to prevent it. I imagine Muslims of good will must feel sad in a similar way about Charles’s journey, even as we Christians rejoice.
I must say that I am feeling especially grieved today upon the news that the barbarians of ISIS have destroyed Mar Elian, a 1,500 year old monastery, and desecrated the relics of St. Elian, a Roman centurion martyred for refusing to renounce his faith. After all these centuries, it came to this. ISIS must be the most evil people on earth, with the possible exception of the North Koreans.