Saying Goodbye

2012-08 Howard J. ChristensonOver the last several days I have stood next to my father’s bedside for every moment upon which my weary feet could stand.  I knew this moment would arrive sometime in the future but I was genuinely caught off-guard recently when it actually happened.  Daddy was 89.  I really shouldn’t have been surprised.

So many times we go with fear and trepidation to the bedside of a dying parent.  The baggage of our past, both joys and troubles, fly to the forefront of our minds, plaguing our hearts as we grapple with how to handle a death event.  We simply don’t like to think about death; the death of a loved one or our own, for that matter.

Walking up to the bedside of someone in the process of dying changes everything.  Death confronts you front and center.  Suddenly, our preferences no longer matter.  Nothing really matters but that person lying on the bed in front of you.

This week it was my turn to confront death face to face.  My father was put into hospice care several days ago.  I arrived by his side to find a tough man who no longer had the ability to fight a battle which he certainly would not be winning.  Regardless, he continued to fight each waking moment.  Daddy, a tough ex-Marine of the WWII mindset, conquered every task placed before him with fervor and you could be sure that he wasn’t about to give in easily to this one.

Now that I had been pushed to go into that place along side of him, I discovered that the journey paralleling the final moments of the dying is really remarkable.  In an instant, as I simply looked down upon my father’s frail body, everything made sense.  Past hurts no longer mattered.  Every precious moment I could remember became even more precious.

Christenson family MN

Daddy playing with the dog. I get my canine love from him.

You see, Daddy was not the kind of guy who could say “I love you” out loud.  I didn’t understand this conundrum as a child, but age, with its acquired wisdom, has given me perspective on the matter, exposing the reality that love is often demonstrated in ways we have to learn to understand.  For instance, living deep beneath my father’s inability to express love was his own father’s habit of denying this very thing to his children.  Forgiveness seems easy once we understand, but as I looked at my father in his weakened condition, I was reminded that we shouldn’t always try to understand before we should desire to forgive.

Daddy didn’t lavish his children with things.  In his own life, he set the example that things really didn’t matter, a wise lesson for his children.  Daddy had practical, real-life expectations of his children.  Each of us knew not to willfully cross him.  He taught us that discipline is a trait which would serve us well in our lives, an unexpected but deliberate gift from a man perceived to be too hard on his family.

Daddy and sister Fern.

Daddy and sister Fern.

Daddy worked so hard, in fact, that he could not seem to find the time, as an example, to attend my band concerts or special life events.  Obviously, this would be hard for any child.  As I grew older I realized that music wasn’t his thing; he saw this as a frivolous activity.  Hard work mattered more for Daddy than frivolity.  Translation = provision for his family was important.

Daddy expected a good report card.  While others threw away the gift of their education, I graduated near the top of my class because of his expectation of me.  Today, I owe my love of research and knowledge to what others would perceive as hardness from a man who didn’t conform to society’s rules.

Daddy didn’t offer his family lavish or even simple vacations of any kind.  He saw vacations as an excess in the reality of a world which takes away more than it gives.  As I reflect on this remembrance, I look to the future and wonder how many in our own generation exhibit this kind of wisdom:  sacrificing ‘wants’ in order to prepare for future ‘needs’ and events which may be difficult to overcome.

Daddy – second from the right – WWII — Marshall Islands.

Howard Christenson 001Howard Christenson 001Daddy was a self-made man.  His own father was very hard on the boys in his immediate family, working them to exhaustion on the family farm.  So, at the age of 16, without a penny in his pocket, Daddy ran away from home, lied about his age and joined the Marine Corps.  Immediately, he was sent into the Pacific during WWII which had just begun.  I wonder how many 16-year old’s of today’s generation could handle this kind of thing?

Daddy served in many military conflicts, including WWII, Korea, Vietnam (twice), Grenada and Cuba.  Wars tend to harden any soul.  Should we judge these souls too harshly for this?

Many times, as children, we watched Daddy go to war, wondering if he would ever come home.  When a bomb drill went off at school, as frequently happened in my elementary school days, we would climb underneath our desks at school.  Daddy was the first one on my mind.  Would he give his life that day for my safety?  I had no doubt that he would have done so.  Daddy knew the cost of freedom in more ways than one.

 Daddy visiting the family farm

Daddy visiting the family farm

Daddy was not unkind, though some would have supposed this of him from first glance.  He was absolutely stern and rigid but truly, is that a fault?  So often we place expectations on others, demanding that they show kindness in the ways we require of them.  Daddy didn’t play by the rules of others’ expectations.  His idea of kindness was providing for his family and giving them the tools to survive in a hard world.  In this enterprise, he excelled.  Daddy may have been a financial miser, but he certainly was not selfish.

Daddy was a product of his generation  He was a gruff Marine; all business.  Yet, underneath that rough exterior, Daddy had a tender underbelly that, though infrequently exposed, was glaring at times.  When that underbelly peeked out from beneath the hard core which sheltered its view, God gave us a glimpse into the heart of what people would call “a hard man.” 

You see, though Daddy couldn’t say “I love you” to our faces, he demonstrated his love in many ways through constant application.  He provided food for our table.  He worked more than a 60-hour week, came home, made dinner (while Mom worked), then went off to his home office to work some more.  This kind of sacrifice allowed a lowly Private in the Marine Corps to rise up through the officer ranks in his career military field.  He worked because he loved to work, but time also revealed that he also worked hard to be sure we had enough — not excess — but enough.

CCF02032012_00008For example, Daddy always sacrificed his own new pair of shoes to be sure our growing feet would not be cold.  He paid for my band instruments even though music was frivolous to him and the cost of the instrument seemed to be extravagant to him.  Not a week went by that he didn’t write letters to his mother or one of his sisters back in Minnesota.  The quiet and unassuming way that he took care of my disabled mother over her lifetime was simply more than remarkable.

And I will never forget the time he allowed me to keep two stray, tiny puppies that someone had abandoned on our street.  My mother was not a fan of animals of any kind.  I asked her if I could keep these two little puppies.  (I had been secretly feeding them food from our kitchen and teaching them tricks for several weeks.)  She replied, “You’ll have to ask your Daddy when he gets home from Vietnam,” thinking that there was no way Daddy would comply to my request.  To my surprise, Daddy’s response was, “If you take care of them, you can keep them.”

Daddy’s tender underbelly.

Ceremony 01

Daddy at my wedding.

One final thought about Daddy:  he taught us not to worry about what others thought about us.  While others cared more about being a part of the country-club crowd, achieving some kind of recognition in a local society or because of their self-perceived status in town, Daddy exhibited the principle of self-worth and humility in all circumstances.  Daddy refused to conform to society’s check-list of acceptable practices but rather chose to live a quiet, unassuming life.  This, in particular, is a gift I cherish from my father.

Thus, as I reflect on these past few difficult days with my dying father, who could have guessed that some of my most precious moments with my father would be experienced upon his deathbed?  Life is not easy, but then again, I suppose that it is better that it is not easy.  We learn so much from adversity.

Daddy’s death certainly was not easy.  His death was a long, drawn-out process, not an instantaneous event.  He was in pain and for the first time in my life I saw fear in his eyes.  This unexpected event allowed me to offer physical comfort to his weak body and soul, something he would have never allowed up until this time.  God uses means we do not understand.

Watching Daddy lie helpless on his deathbed allowed me the opportunity to caress his weary, broken body with loving touches and to speak words of love and appreciation directly into his eyes.  He would have never allowed this in the past.

Daddy with granddaughter Becca.

Daddy with granddaughter Becca.

Often, during the end of life process, verbal communication is not possible, and that was the case with Daddy’s death.  Yet, even this inconvenience produced merciful fruit.  In order to communicate with Daddy, it was necessary to come close to his face.  I used this opportunity to mouth the words, (repeatedly, because he would come in and out of consciousness), “It’s Kathy, Daddy.  I….love…”  Daddy is deaf, but because he can read lips to an extent, even in this weakened state, he was able to hear these words from me over and over.

Remarkably, for the first time in our lives together, Daddy was able to receive these words from me.  The icing on the cake?  I was able to see the gratitude in his eyes for the expression of these words.  Three simple words caused his moaning to cease to a quiet hum.  His focused gaze into my eyes and his mumbled sounds expressed after hearing these words said loudly and clearly, “Thank you for being here.  I love you, too.”  After a lifetime of absence, these words, the very words Daddy ran away from, comforted his own heart and soul.  The richest of blessings in the most difficult of times.

Howard J Christenson 03Too often, people hold grudges about past events rather than trying to see through them and beyond them — rather than trying to understand them.  The reality is that God uses various means to teach us important lessons through difficult circumstances.  God never promised that our sanctification would be easy.  We can either choose to be grateful for the lessons he sends our way or we can choose to wallow in self-pity and our self-inflicted expectations of others.  We can choose to point fingers at others rather that to see the depth of sin within our own heart.

So, Daddy, if somehow you can see that I am shedding a tear this morning, you don’t have to give your typical response, “Stop that crying.  Be a Marine!”  Daddy, my tears are in gratitude for you and for all you did over the course of your life for me…….and because I love you.  Because I know you loved me, too……even if you were unable to say it.  You were not a perfect man, but you were a great man, Daddy.

What an honor and privilege to be able to sit with my dying father during his last moments on earth!  Together, both of us had to come to terms with the stark reality of death — both the death of the parent and the thought of one’s own impending death.

How God works is a mystery.  Yet, God is sovereign in all things, including our death.  He holds each of our lives in the palm of His hand.  My father’s death showed me that God does delight to give good gifts to his children — but they are the gifts of His choosing, not of our choosing.  To see love in my father’s eyes towards me is a gift I will always cherish.

Our lives on this earth are but for  moment and if we are wise, we will learn to live for the eternal.  Perhaps the only way we can see the eternal clearly is to try understand the temporal in context, but even that is not a perfect tool.  That’s where God’s Word comes into play.

Howard J Christenson 10

Daddy with sister Fern.

Here, at the end of his life, Daddy was able to hear the words of scripture as I read to him.  Because I understand that God’s Word is the power unto salvation, not my own promptings nor my own words, I was able to read beautiful, comforting words from scripture to my Daddy.  He was a captive audience whereupon once he would have run. Thank you, God, for this opportunity.

This article would fail to be complete if I did not express a sincere heart of gratitude for those who participated in this process with me.  Truly, there are not enough words to say to thank you to the faithful Hospice care workers, as well as the nursing staff at Daddy’s assisted living home.  Through their faithful attendance to Daddy’s needs — and because of their love for him (in spite of his faults), it was evident to me that God had orchestrated even these ordinary means in my Daddy’s life.

Dad receiving an award - always the hard worker.

Dad receiving an award – always the hard worker.

For those of you who have not gone through this difficult trial, I hope you will take the time to express gratitude to anyone you know who works in Hospice on in a nursing care facility.  They are a very special breed of people and I am forever grateful to them for loving my very difficult father — for managing his end-of-life care so that he would not suffer too much.  There are not enough words in the dictionary to thank these amazing people.   Surely God has a special place in His heart for those who care for the elderly.

I also want to thank my wonderful sister-in-law, Sandy, for loving my father as her own — and my brother, Mark, for being there when I live so far away.  Sandy’s sacrifice and tender care to his needs have been observed, treasured and appreciated.  Mark’s daily care for Daddy during his aging years is appreciated more than he will know.  I also thank my sister, Lynda, for always being on top of the earthly matters that sometimes needed to be handled.  She always handled them with efficiency and fervor.

Death is common to all of us.  Yet, those with an eternal perspective know that death is not the end.  It is at this moment, I see the remarkable wisdom of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

Daddy, rest in peace.  I’ll love you forever.
Howard J Christenson 01

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22 Responses to Saying Goodbye

  1. KathrynNo Gravatar says:

    Beautiful, just beautiful, Kathy. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  2. Sue LogstonNo Gravatar says:

    Kathy, (and family),
    I am deeply sorry for your loss. At this moment, it seems almost unfathomable, I know.
    As time passes, the loss remains; but somehow, the comfort of knowing the profound love given by our earthly father comes to us as we need. I am happy that you had the time to say good-bye and I love you to your Dad. I know that will sustain you in the days ahead, along with your love for our Heavenly Father.
    God bless and keep you,
    Mike and Sue and family

    • trollNo Gravatar says:

      Thank you so much for your words, Sue. I know you understand exactly what I have been through this week. Your prayers are greatly appreciated.

  3. cousin joyceNo Gravatar says:

    Beautiful. Thank you for sharing.Gods peace and grace be with you.

  4. Carol BoyleNo Gravatar says:

    So sorry to hear of your father’s death, Kathy. Although I knew your mom from First Baptist church, I really did not know your dad except that he substituted at JHS on occasion. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

    In your writing about your dad I was reminded of my own dad who was, also, of the WWII
    Era. He had a similar set of principles and background. What a wonderful thing to be at your parent’s side at such a time to offer peace,solace, and love.

    • trollNo Gravatar says:

      Thanks so much, Carol. Funny, I still want to call you Mrs. B :) I did not realize your father was also a WWII vet. That generation worked so hard — today’s generation really can’t understand the mindset. But I am grateful. Thanks for your words of comfort. I am grateful.

  5. Peggy SharpNo Gravatar says:

    Dear Kathy, Beautifully written, and testified. Our sympathy to you and your family.. Hope to see you some day – this spring? Love Peg

  6. Joyce GreenleeseNo Gravatar says:

    Dear Kathy:

    Thank you for sending this beautiful remembrance of your father. I knew your Mom for so many years and really got to know Chris, your Dad, when we were all neighbors at Camp Pendleton. When I would come by your house to see your Mom, Chris would have something very witty to say and I always looked forward to that comment.

    Your words about your Dad are so beautiful and so inspirational. If you don’t mind I am going to forward this to Glenda and Brenda. I think they would love to read your beautiful words about your Dad.

    God Bless you and your family.

    All my sympathy to each of you,

    Joyce Greenleese

  7. Dale PiersNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks, Kathy, for the beautiful, grace-filled expression of your love for your father. I enjoyed the pictures as well, but I was moved to tears by your tender, loving spirit and powerful faith. May God grant you His peace.
    Dale Piers

    • trollNo Gravatar says:

      THanks, Dale — and I am so grateful for you and your dear wife for walking me through this process. I am blessed to know both of you.

  8. Karen ThompsonNo Gravatar says:

    This was a very poignant read!! It truly is hard for us at times to let go of things that we perceive to be so egregious in our minds, such as hurts, disappointments, failures. And yet in the end what does it really matter? Nothing in comparison to the person and what they have meant to us. I am so happy that you were able to spend those last moments with your father. I was able to spend quite a bit of time with my father in the last few years of his life. Moments of time that I would not trade for anything!! It is my prayer that God’s peace, forgiveness and love surround you and yours during this sorrowful time.

    Thinking of you,
    Karen and Andy Thompson

    • trollNo Gravatar says:

      Karen, I am glad you got to spend time with your father before he passes. It’s funny how the end of life allows us to see what we should be able to see throughout a lifetime. Thanks so much for your prayers!

  9. Ken BergmanNo Gravatar says:

    I am very sorry for your loss.
    Both your Mom and Dad were very kind to me when I was stationed at Camp Lejeune; they treated me like family. They hosted Lynne when she visited me from Alabama, before we got married. I remember that your Dad always had a smile on his face, with positive words of encouragement and sound advice for everyone he met.
    You and your family are in our prayers.

    • trollNo Gravatar says:

      Thanks, Kenny — They always enjoyed your visits. You got to see Daddy’s tender underbelly. Not many got to see that.

  10. Debbie BoggsNo Gravatar says:

    That was a beautiful eulogy to your Dad. Sorry for your loss of such a strong individual. My grandson is turning 15 this month and I cant imagine him going off to war a year from now. Allow me to thank you and your family for the sacrifice you endured over the years for the sake of our nation.
    You are in our prayers.

  11. Deanna CaseyNo Gravatar says:

    Kathy, thank you for writing such a moving tribute to your father. I never met him, but I understand his generation, and all that made them the way they were–the great depression, the war, and the hard-work values they developed. There are certainly other ways to say “I love you” than with the actual words. I am glad you were able to spend this precious time with your father–God bless you!

  12. Ray BergmanNo Gravatar says:

    One of my favorite memories of your Dad was the time everyone was angry at me for being late to a rendezvous at Six Flags when your parents had visited St Louis, (I was in my late teens or early 20s, and was a bit immature & self centered).
    Seriously, I had a dozen people breathing down my neck that I had ruined their afternoon through my inattention to the meeting time at the end of our visit. He was the only one who saw my angst, and spoke kindly to reassure me that it wasn’t that big a deal. I don’t remember him as a stern Marine, but as an approachable and compassionate man every time we encountered each other.

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