Thursday, July 15, 2010
The Joy of Distressing Circumstances - Boers
My father was being prepped for surgery. My wife, mother, and I waited in his hospital room. This was in the very building where my mother gave birth to me decades earlier. An old brick institution, its walls and steel radiators were coated in so many layers and layers of paint that all the corners and angles seemed rounded.
Lying under the stretcher’s white sheets, my father looked old, frail, and pale. He hadn’t shaved that day, unusual for him. As I kissed his cheek, thick black stubble jabbed my lips. I wished him well. I studied his eyes intently and would not look away, probing their deep blueness. Was this the last time I would speak to him and he to me? He was never one for being touchy-feely so I did not ask these questions out loud.
I was scared. I never take surgery for granted. My wife was an operating room nurse for years. I’ve heard stories. Unexpected things happen. Anesthesia can go awry. When my father’s father had surgery for lung cancer – he was a heavy smoker too – the procedure’s complications killed him. They removed his cancerous tissue, the surgery was “successful,” but he perished anyway. He was 57 at the time, only a few years younger than my father now was.
Two white garbed attendants and sneakers matter-of-factly wheeled my father away, rubber soles squeaking on the linoleum tiles. I did not blink as I wanted to memorize what he looked like. If this was the last time that I saw him, I would remember it well. While the wheels creaked around a corner and my father disappeared from view I wondered what would happen. I had brought my one good suit along on this trip, in case there was to be a funeral.
But here’s the thing, the strange thing. I felt contented, almost happy. Not because I might lose my father. That idea terrified me. But I was deeply satisfied and calm because I knew that I was precisely where I ought and needed to be. Nothing else counted. Nothing else mattered. Not the work of the local church that I pastored a couple hundred miles away, as important as that ministry was. Not all those to-do lists that always haunt me with undone tasks at home or on the job.
In that hospital room, with all its frightening uncertainty, I was precisely where I belonged. With my wife and mother, waiting and praying for my father, uncertain about what the next hours or days or months might bring. Not knowing what the future held.
Nine months or so after that surgery, I tended my father on the final night of his life and the next morning my mother, Lorna, and I sat by his bed and held his hands as he breathed for the last time. As a pastor, I sat with Joan and her children as cancer finished a life that had been haunted by abuse and addictions and the suicides of loved ones. In one memorable week I was with two beloved congregants in their last moments. I prayed for a small boy, Matthew, as his life support was removed and his parents and I cried for him and then some days later was beside the hospital bed of aged Oliver with his spouse and children as his frail body capitulated to the Parkinson’s Disease that had plagued him for years.
These were moments of intention and attention. No distractions. No ambivalence. All of us were fully present and we knew that something holy and hard was happening. Just this strong sense that I was exactly where I needed to be.
It is not only in crises, of course, that we get to see clearly and order rightly. I think of days and weeks at monasteries or other retreats. Or being at a cottage with my family. Or long distance hiking, once for a 500 mile stretch along a pilgrimage trail in Spain. Or sometimes in Sunday morning worship.
I love and savor those moments of clarity. I want all my life to have such qualities of presence and mindfulness. But I am not always so good at that. And I know that I am not the only one.
Arthur Boers is the author of The Way is Made by Walking: A Pilgrimage Along the Camino de Santiago (InterVarsity) and holds the RJ Bernardo Family Chair of Leadership at Tyndale Seminary, Toronto.
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