This Mortal Coil
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: