Thirty-three years-ago, April 8, 1985, my father passed away. He had been a lifelong smoker and was diagnosed with lung cancer when I was in sixth grade. After surgery and radiation had given him a couple of cancer free years, the cancer returned. This time it had also spread to his liver. The last few weeks of his life he spent in a hospital bed in our living room. Our family were his caretakers and our house became his hospice. Even though I was not shaving regularly, I remember helping him shave. One night he had a seizure and fell out of bed. Awoken by my mom or perhaps my sister, the details are slipping my memory, we helped him get back into bed. On the day that he died I remember sitting with him and he grasped my hand. My dad was never an overtly affectionate man, so it was my presumption he wanted his water or washcloth. Whatever I offered him, he pushed away. He reached out again and grabbed my hand. This time I realized I just needed to hold it and sit with him. After a little bit he let me know he was ok and let go. Whatever anxiety he was feeling had passed. A couple hours later he would die. I was by his bedside. There have been moments where I have wondered why I had to deal with something most others my age didn’t have to contemplate. My dad never talked of death. Our assumption was that for him to speak about dying would have been giving in and letting the cancer win. A farmer for almost his entire life, he was used to pushing ahead, making life happen. He was a man of character, deep faith and resolute in whatever he put his mind to. Therefore, he could not, would not speak about dying.
The fact is we are all going to die. You are going to die. It was a lesson I learned early in life and unfortunately have had affirmed in many ways. In fact, besides my dad’s death in April, in January, my grandmother, my mom’s mom, had died and in August my grandfather, my mom’s dad, died. In eight months, my mom witnessed the death of her husband, mother and father. Shortly after, the dad of a high school friend passed away. Then, his mom died by suicide about a year later. In my first ministry position the dad of one of our parish youth, a Vice-Principal at a school, was murdered in a school shooting. On a mission trip to the Dominican Republic, the son of my host family was murdered in New York. These are examples of significant and sometimes traumatic experiences of death and grief. Learning to cope with loss has been the most difficult part of my life. There have been times I have not handled it well. Too often I just simply wanted my way. It is difficult to not brace and protect yourself. Recently I saw this quote from Jeff Bridges, “Most cynics are really crushed romantics, they’ve been hurt, they are sensitive, and their cynicism is a shell that’s protecting this tiny dear part of them that is still alive.” This is me! Although there are dark and pessimistic moments, hope still abounds- even if it is a little protected.
And so, I hope it is with you. Life is fragile. It will pass in a blink of an eye and can be stolen mercilessly from us at a time and place of its own choosing. We have no control. Our choice then is either to live protected, controlled, worried or anxious. We can follow societal constructs and the path someone else carves for us and not allow anything to touch us. Or we can live with passion, hope and joy; following the Spirit. This is the message of the Resurrection. Even death cannot ruin life. It is precious, valuable, wild and hopeful. Let’s live like our hair is on fire! We have a gift. Let’s embrace, treasure and share it!
(Daddy, at times I wonder if I really remember you anymore. What I do remember most was the summer between my eighth and ninth grade years. You had retired. We didn’t know you were sick, but the cancer had probably returned by then. I don’t remember any special words. What I remember is a feeling. The feeling of being with you. Even then I loved to stir the pot and you had a way of gently, subtly and wisely putting me in my place. I loved every minute of it.)
Discovery House, a service-based gap year experience for participants ages 18-20, will begin August 2018. Please share this information with an individuals who may want to participate or support this new ministry.
Joe Nettesheim is the founder and director of 12plus1. He has been involved in Church Ministry since 1991. He and his wife Maribeth got married despite this picture from 1987.