Why I’m a Chaplain – I: My Dad

I thought I’d start a series talking less about the practicalities of hospice and chaplaincy and share a bit about what got me to this place in life. Even these are going to be numbered don’t think of them being in any particular order.

So first is my dad.

I grew up in rural western Pennsylvania on a 50 acre farm with my three sisters, mom and dad. My dad, besides running the farm, worked in a sintering plant. The steel industry in the area was on the decline, and I remember my dad alternately being laid off, then working odd shift hours, then being laid off again and so on. But something significant happened when I was in about middle school: my dad was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocitic Leukemia (if I remember all that correctly). Initially this came as a huge blow to our family, but our doctor said that if you were going to get Leukemia this is the type to get. It was not itself fatal, and could be managed fairly well.

After his diagnosis he was able to retire early from his job at the plant under disability. This meant that he got not only his pension but also debility pay. It also meant that everyone in the family got extra financial compensation from the company as well – not a lot, but a amount significant enough to start a good college fund. Most importantly, my dad was able to retire before the industry totally collapsed. Many weren’t able to collect on their full pensions and were left struggling. My family, because of my dad’s illness, was able to live more comfortably than we could before. He could travel and not be concerned about layoffs and shifts, and he had more time to spend with us as a family. It would be several years before the disease started to take its toll on him.

When I started seminary I had the chance to have my mom and dad come out to visit us in New Haven. My dad’s old Navy ship was being recommissioned as a submarine in Mystic and he was going to visit with old friends and see it off. It was one of the last times I saw him doing fairly well. After that he grew weaker and more unsteady, and we found that a cancer that had started in his lung several years ago had traveled to his brain. He was starting to fall and my 5′ 4″ mother could not get this 6′ 5″ man up off the floor anymore. Our family started to look at placement options.

One day my dad was in the hospital for some testing and my mom was with him. The story my mom told was that it was lunchtime and he told her to go down and get lunch while he used the bathroom. She left but when she got down to the cafeteria a hospital worker caught her and told her to go back upstairs. My dad had apparently called for the aides to come and when they did he had a massive stroke and died.

I remember hearing the news – it was finals week of my second term in seminary, and after wailing for while all alone I remember calling my wife to come home. I then remember having more clarity than I had in a long time. I called my professors and told them my dad had died and that I was going home. No questions were asked.

What I learned: Tragedy is relative

A diagnosis of an incurable disease it typically not cause for happy thoughts. However in this case it was able to be a real blessing to my entire family. I’ve had other cases too when tragedies have more than just a bright side. I visited a couple last week where the husband has terminal cancer but he is able to still maintain a relatively good quality of life at home. When I visited them they both shared just how thankful they’ve been to have the time that they have now together, and that this disease has given them a quite singular focus: to appreciate and love each other as much as they can. In the middle of what many would only see as a tragedy they found great depth and clarity. This does not diminish the edge that is eventually going to cut deeply, but as of right now it has provided them opportunities to bless each other.

In my dad’s case we were actually thankful that we did not have to place him in a home. He was able to live at home for as long as he was alive, even though he died in a hospital. We didn’t have to see a long, slow, wasting decline. It was good.

In no way do I want to come across as an “every cloud has a silver lining” kind of panglossian here. Cancer and death are bad, horrible things. But they can also help us grow and open our eyes to things that are good that we otherwise might have ignored.

What else I learned: Sometimes you know

I think my dad knew he was dying. I think he sent my mom out of the room so she wouldn’t be scared. Can I prove that? Obviously not. Is this the optimistic chatter of someone trying to find meaning where it isn’t? I don’t think so, but I could see how it could be seen as such.

But I’ve seen so many other cases where similar things have happened. The call from the distant family member comes in, or the daughter says goodbye, and everything changes in the blink of an eye and they are dead. I even had a man rapidly decline on the day he used to lead a parade in his hometown, and then die precisely when the parade would have ended. Sometimes the right people are there, sometimes it’s the brief window when everyone is gone. But I think sometimes you know. I tell families this: that sometimes they’re waiting for you and sometimes they’re waiting for you to leave. If you feel like you need to stay, stay. If you need to leave, leave. How it happens isn’t up to you, and it may not necessarily be up to them. But it is up to God, and His ways are beyond our comprehension. It will happen the way it is supposed to.


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