As I write this, I am sitting with my wife at her mother’s bedside in a skilled nursing facility. Having been in the ministry for more than thirty years, I have seen dying people, and it is obvious that my mother-in-law will not be in this world much longer. I always knew this day would come.
My wife and I were married when we were young Bible college students. Our parents were about the same age, and when we were younger, it seemed that they were so vibrant and full of life. It was a blessing to see them spend time with our children. My wife’s parents lived in Ohio about three hours west of our home in Cleveland. Since we were in the ministry, it was hard for us to get away on the weekends so one weekend a month Denise’s parents would travel to our house to spend time with us. The boys loved it when Nanny and Papa Jimmy came to visit! My parents live in Cleveland and are active members of our church so our boys were able to see them on a regular basis. It was great to attend church with the whole family serving and worshiping the Lord together. The years have come and gone, and our children have grown up and are married. All of our children love and serve the Lord with their wives and children. Our oldest son is a Christian business man, and the two younger boys are preachers serving the Lord in the ministry. Time sure has a way of moving on.
Two and half years ago we said good-bye to my father-in-law as the awful disease called Alzheimer’s was used by the Lord to take him Home. He was buried in the summer, and our middle son, Peter, preached his Papa Jimmy’s funeral. He cried his way through the service. Although it was a tender time, it was also tough for him. I don’t suppose there is any more difficult funeral to conduct than a close family member. It was especially difficult for a tender- hearted, young preacher to preach his grandfather’s funeral. Knowing that his papa was Home with the Lord made it a little easier.
About six months ago, my wife’s mother was diagnosed with a non-malignant brain tumor. It was fairly large and was causing her to suffer with decreased quality of life. Though she was almost eighty, the decision was made to try and remove the tumor. The Monday before Christmas of 2009 she went through a long surgery, and the doctor was pleased with the outcome. It has been a long road, and she has battled amazingly well. However, complications have set in and now we sit in this room waiting for the Lord’s time to take her Home. I watch as she labors to breathe and hear the sound of the oxygen machine go through its cycle. I know this entire process has been extremely hard on my wife. After the surgery, she would go almost every day to the rehabilitation facility and spend a couple of hours with her mom. Trying to help and make her time there a little less difficult. Along the way, there have been bright spots of good days and also dark moments when it looked as though we would have to begin at square one again.
I have thought a lot about what has happened as I have watched our family go through this time and there have been several lessons that the Lord has taught me:
The first lesson is that death, old age, and sickness are inevitable. It comes to everyone’s home and family, and it will continue until the Lord deals with the last enemy, death.
Secondly, I have been made keenly aware of unsung heroes that work hard at taking care of languishing and dying people in skilled nursing facilities. These trained workers need to be encouraged and appreciated for the job they do in caring for our loved ones when it is no longer possible to take care of them at home.
Thirdly, I did not realize the toll it takes on people when a loved one is in a nursing facility. I have watched my wife basically put her life on hold while she ministered to her mother. She was still a wife to me, the first lady of the church, still taught her ladies Bible study, still a mother to our children and grandma to our grandchildren, but everything else was pushed back so she could be there for her mom.
Finally, I have also been reminded that material possessions are temporal. Throughout our lives we build and stockpile possessions only to arrive at the end of our lives and find that it has been diminished to a twin bed, a single closet and that all of our earthly belongings have either been sold or given away because we no longer need them. After all, the book of Job says, “Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”
As a pastor, I have dealt with death from the other side. I have buried hundreds of people, lots of church members, friends, and other people’s family members, but it is quite different when you are on this side of it. So now we wait for the Lord’s timing in the life of my mother-in-law as the Bible says we have an appointment with death. I also realize that if the Lord does not come I will deal with this enemy again in the lives of my parents and, at some point, face it myself. Knowing this, I am thankful for God’s eternal salvation and a place called Heaven. As the song writer said, “There’s a land that is fairer than day, and by faith we can see it afar, for the Father waits over the way, to prepare us a dwelling place there. In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore, in the sweet by and by we shall meet on that beautiful shore.”
Today, I am far more aware of my own mortality. I understand as the Psalmist states in Psalms 90 that, “The days of our years are threescore and ten; and if by reason of strength, they be four score years, yet is there strength, labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” He goes on to say, “So teach us to number our days, that we might apply our hearts unto wisdom.” May we realize that every day is a gift and should be used to serve the Lord!
Author’s Note: Since this piece was originally written, my mother-in-law has gone Home to be with the Lord. In fact, she went Home just before midnight on March 3, 2010, the day I wrote this piece. The funeral was conducted in Lima, Ohio, on March 9, 2010, and all three of our sons had a part in her service.
This time in my life serves to make me more aware of the suffering and sorrow of others. Having walked this path with my wife twice in the last two years has made me more aware of the grief that others in our church family deal with at such times.