A Cairn in the Woods

Late Monday night, while I lay zipped up snug in a tent deep in the blacknightcold of the Pemigewasset Wilderness, my dad pitched headlong onto the unforgiving floor of his room at the assisted living facility where he lives.

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While I lay, believing my only worry to be a bear breaking into the metal box protecting my food, my dad lay with his head on cold tile, bleeding, 100 miles away.

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There is so much in life we don’t understand, can’t control, refuse to accept.

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Like death with dignity.

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What does that even mean?

Having watched my mother disappear into the unrelenting ravages of a progressive brain disease, in the end able only to blink and flutter a helpless hand; having held my son’s cold arm, unable to look one last time at his sweet face, wrecked by the accident and covered in a shroud; and now, having ears assaulted by my father’s confused shouts to openthedoor, helpme, ICANTBREATHE as he twisted in pain on a hospital bed – having seen too close the carnage death delivers, I am unable to accept such a concept.

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There is nothing dignified about death – nor should there be.

Death is an assault, an affront. It is the thief that comes only to steal and kill and destroy (John 10:10a): our sworn enemy, relentless and heartless and heedless of rank, station, or affection.

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We were not created to die, however, but to live. And not just to eke out some weary actuality until we limp, defeated, to a dark earthen hole.

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No.

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Though the enemy’s scheme is murder and mayhem, Jesus has come that we may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10b).

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When my brother called me about my dad’s fall and subsequent hospitalization, I had just finished a 2 1/2 day, 7-peak traverse in the woods that I love. Fall and winter – color, light and mood – had been wrestling at altitude. The contrast between bare granite dry and icy struggle was a wonder.

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The same seemed true when I arrived to see my father. Though the room was sheathed in harsh light and antiseptic, though all appeared colorless and sterile and bleak, a battle raged.

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My dad was a fighter.

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Sadly, he was no stranger to a hospital bed since his Lewy Body Dementia inflicted indignity after indignity upon his weakening frame: multiple falls, confusion, respiratory distress, hallucinations. This last crusade was no different.

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Despite a head riddled with stitches and a chestful of 12 broken ribs, my dad fought to breathe, to speak, to hold my hand, to eat a donut even, which turned out to be his last and final meal.

As his life slipped away into the fog of the morphine drip, pain and earth fading, he advanced steadily forward through enemy lines to his final destination.

The Lord is your Shepherd, Daddy, I whispered in the stillness.

You don’t need to fear – He’s readied your seat at the table.

Here he is – anointing your poor, broken head with oil, filling your cup to the brim, surrounding you with love and mercy, and there’s nothing our sworn enemy can do about it.

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You have just begun to live.

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As we waited for the medical examiner to arrive, I thought of the peaks I had climbed – could it be? – just days before.

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Why did it seem that the ones most difficult to scale – the ones remote, icy-trailed, muddy-puddled, requiring knee-deep crossings of rapid rivers – why did these mountains end in nothing but a viewless, scrabbly pile of rocks in a clearing?

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I thought of those cairns as my brother, my daughter and I watched my father die, one thread of family unraveling as the man who held us all together – faithful father, loving spouse, patient Papa – finished his earthly race.

May we always keep the faith, fight the good fight, until the time of our departure is near (2 Timothy 4:6,7).

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Heaven is not a cairn in the woods, arrived at after long struggle and stumble and frustration.

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Heaven is not even a treeless summit above the clouds, grand and expansive, exquisite and rare.

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No.

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Heaven is so much better, like no other place we have known. Heaven is where the enemy cannot follow, where we may run and climb and breathe and love unencumbered by the weight of failure and fragility and pain.

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Heaven is life and life forever, had to the full. 

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I walked outside, and it was just like God to leave me a note in His compassionate hand.

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I wasn’t surprised.