We stood by the bedside, talking and praying. Could he hear us? We thought so. Hoped so. He took each breath with a sudden, sharp gasp. He lay on his left side, frail body propped with pillows. His wife stroked his white, wispy hair. His daughter held his hand, rubbing the meat of his thumb with hers.
The memory of that moment—a dark Good Friday in a nearby clinic—hasn’t left me. I couldn’t shake it during Easter services. While we praised and sang for a risen King, I knew that, just a few miles away, a friend—a second father to me, really—was dying.
He’d been sick for a while. Over the last two years, each time we saw him he looked a little smaller. But even through cancer and Crohn’s disease and, finally, a stroke that robbed him of the use of half his body, he felt himself: He smiled and talked. He joked about his condition. Yes, he was diminished, but he was still here. Still his same, quiet self—filled with knowledge and grace, those same thoughtful eyes and the same wry smile.
He took a turn Thursday, though, and when we saw him on Friday, we all knew he was nearly done.
I met the man when I was 9 years old—a scrawny, bucktoothed kid who just moved to town. I was so shy that, for the first several weeks, I spent recess by myself, throwing pebbles at my own shoes. I might’ve spent the rest of my childhood that way if it hadn’t been for the man’s son. Bret and I became best friends in fourth grade. We’ve been best friends ever since, and I grew close to his brother and sister, too.
Their house became my second home—a place of sleepovers and movie parties. We’d send toy cars screaming down the front walkway, prowl through the massive shed looking for treasure. I ate countless dinners there, and each started the same way: “Come Lord Jesus be our guest, and let these gifts to us be blest.” We’d share stories and laugh until we cried. Maybe the man would spin a precious tale of his own: working as a kid in the Texas fields; traveling to Vietnam in some semi-secret capacity; quiet Christmases in Colorado Springs. I loved his stories; we all did. They seemed plucked from an ancient, almost mythic past—the stuff of storybooks, but real.
But those stories were rare treats indeed. For the most part, he’d simply sit, and smile, and chuckle, a sage secure in his place, deflecting all attention to others. He was never boisterous, never flashy. He didn’t feel the need to be the center of attention. He was there not for himself, but for us.
But none of us, no matter how strong, no matter how good, are in this world forever.
It’s hard to see him as he is now. So light and frail he seems, almost like a bird. And soon—in days, maybe hours—he’ll fly away.
“Why are you crying, Grandma?” his granddaughter asks. “We’ll get to see him again in heaven.” And so we will. But it’s tough to say goodbye in the here and now, particularly when the goodbye itself is so difficult. It’s hard to smile at this farewell.
I thought about this as I sang through the Easter service, eyes wet and voice faltering. Why, Lord, is there so much pain in this world? Why do good people have to suffer?
And then I remembered my Job and understood it better. Why is there pain? Because. Life is broken from the beginning. We’re frail from the start. Might as well ask my dog why it barks at beetles, why deer stop in the middle of the street, why mice sometimes eat their own. Why? Life is life. Pain is a part of its nature. Suffering is inescapable. That bed in which the man lies? Most of us will be in the same bed someday.
“In this life you will have trouble,” Jesus said.
But take heart. I have overcome the world.
Jesus suffered on Good Friday, experienced a level of pain few of us can imagine. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” he said. And He died.
But He didn’t stay dead.
I think of that empty tomb, and I think of a bed that will soon be empty, too. A man gone home, all suffering and pain wiped away, greeting the afterlife like a long-lost friend. I wonder how this quiet, stoic man will greet the Almighty. Will he dance? Laugh? Fall on his knees?
I’d like to think he’d simply smile that wry smile of his. Chuckle under his breath. “Well,” he’d say. “What do you know?”
He is risen, we say today.
He is risen indeed.