My Last Conversation with Dad
Dad's medical odyssey began in July 2008, when two gallstones got lodged in his pancreas. This started a domino effect of medical problems over the last two years that included acute pancreatitis, kidney failure, respiratory failure, a series of hospital-acquired infections, and a cardiac emergency that left him with brain injury. He had been in and out of six different hospitals and had been in hospice care at a nursing home for the last several months.
Last week, on Tuesday, July 13, I had spent the day with him at the nursing home. I was sitting in the chair beside Dad’s bed, after lunch. We were watching TV together, and suddenly he started trying to ask me something. It was difficult to make out what he was asking, and at first I thought he was trying to say the word “itchy.” I asked if he felt itchy. Then it sounded like he was asking me if I was itchy. It finally dawned on me what he was asking: “Did you ever read Nietzsche?”
That was the last thing in the world I expected to hear from him. I told him yes, I had read Nietzsche. He got this wistful look in his eyes and said, “I never did.” Then he asked, “What do you think he meant when he said God is dead?”
For a moment I felt disoriented, almost dizzy. I’d had a text-conversation with my godson John about Nietzsche just a few nights before. I told Dad I didn’t think Nietzsche was talking literally because he was an atheist, so he didn’t believe in God, much less a God who could die. “I think he was talking about ideas and concepts of God that he found irrelevant or even harmful. In Nietzsche’s time that would be--”
I started to say Descartes, but Dad interrupted me and said “Luther?” I said, “Yeah, Luther and Calvin, and I think he railed against Descartes too.”
Then I asked if he had ever read Meister Eckhart. He said, “Online,” which I understood to mean he’d read a translation of Meister Eckhart on the Christian Classics Ethereal Library website, a few years ago when he was reading the Christian classics online. Dad had told me last year that he’d read The Cloud of Unknowing online, but it was an old translation that wasn’t easy to understand.
I quoted Meister Eckhart’s famous line, “I pray God to rid me of God.” Dad furrowed his brow like he was thinking that over. I told Dad I thought Meister Eckhart was talking about moving beyond our ideas and concepts of God and having a relationship with God himself. Dad nodded his head. His eyes were clear – he didn’t have that confused or disoriented look he so often had.
Then I asked, “Why were you thinking about Nietzsche? Does it feel like God is dead?” It took Dad a few seconds to answer, and I became aware during that time that I wasn’t breathing. Part of me was afraid of what he might answer. I took a deep breath, and Dad said: “No. Sometimes it feels like God is – absent.” I could tell Dad had chosen that last word carefully.
Then Dad went on to say, “But other times I know God is present.” He turned his head and looked me directly in the eye and said, “I think he’s waiting for me.”
I squeezed his hand firmly and said, with a certainty that came over me like a flood of grace, “He is. He IS waiting for you, and so is Roy [Dad's brother], and so is Papa Grizzle…”
And Dad smiled and said, “And your Papa Pence.” His grip on my hand loosened and he laid his head back on his pillow and closed his eyes. I had the feeling the conversation, which lasted for less than two minutes, had exhausted him. Each word he had spoken, it seemed, took an immense amount of effort from him.
He was asleep within a minute. Shortly after that, I left the nursing home and drove to Canton to take a DUI evaluation to an attorney. She wasn’t in her office, so I slid the report under her door. I was glad she wasn’t in, because my eyes were red and blotchy from crying.
When I got back to Dad’s room about an hour later, he was awake and had turned the TV from National Geographic to Family Feud. I started to tell him about the new book my friend Carl McColman had written about the Christian mystics, including Meister Eckhart – but I could quickly tell from Dad’s eyes that he didn’t know what I was talking about. I asked him if he remembered asking me about Nietzsche, and again his eyes had a confused look, like he didn’t even understand the question. He didn’t remember our conversation at all.
But I know that earlier that afternoon Dad had been clear-minded and thoughtful, and he had been certain that God was waiting for him to come home.
Labels: In Memoriam