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.

On Friendship

I went to Panera’s after church on Sunday with my dearest friends.

While two of us joked about how the cashier had butchered our names the last time we were here, the third confessed that she always gave a false name when asked by restaurateurs: the stranger, the better.

JoJo. Winifred. Mary, Queen of Scots.

It had gotten to the point that when a waiter called out one of her ridiculous pseudonyms, her family would knowingly look over at her and roll their eyes.

Of course, we played along.

Joining our friend in this harmless game, we were further rewarded with a bored young cashier with a flair for creative spelling.

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It’s good to laugh with friends who get you.

You see, we had just come from a church service that had emptied my very soul.

A week filled with dark dreams, children dealing with injuries and illnesses and hard choices, and pondering the fate of my boy who was gone had left me raw, vulnerable.

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Church is perhaps the best place to be in such a state, and when one of the elders’ wives asked if there were anyone present in a state of deep lament, I felt she had peeled back the very layers of my heart and exposed the dendrites of loss and loneliness, doubt and ache.

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My friends surrounded me as I sat, sobbing, a balled up kleenex in my fist, and spoke over me the truth I desperately needed to hear. Who else would sit on a cold concrete floor at your feet while your face leaked, wrap your knees in firm embrace, weep and intercede for you with groans that words cannot express? (Romans 8:26)

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There’s a verse in the Bible about friendship that I call to mind when I consider these women: A person of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (Proverbs 18:24)

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True friends are family.

I feel so blessed for the dear friends, sisters, in my life, who have stuck by me when it would have been easier to run.

The ones who propped me up through divorce and death, the ones who cooked my family meals, bought me flowers, and helped pack up my house when moving was the last thing I wanted to do. Ones who text me still with “I remember’s” and nostalgic photographs, work out beside me, or meet me at restaurants despite the distance or time. Ones who don’t mind when you invite yourself over to the Superbowl party they didn’t even know they were hosting.

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Jesus called his disciples friends.

Us: not servants who do not know their master’s business, but dearly chosen friends to whom He can trust with the heart of the Father and whom He has appointed to bear fruit for His kingdom. (John15:15,16)

And not only that – as if that were not enough – our intimacy with Jesus gives us an all-access pass to the Father. So when we bring our children, our marriages, our jobs, our health, when we bring whatever it is we are in need of, whether in despair or hope or doubt or trust, to Him in prayer, Jesus promises that whatever we ask in His name the Father will give us. (John 15:16)

As the three of us sat drinking our coffee and nibbling our toast, I marveled at how it was only the beginning; our friendship was not something even death could end.

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I expect the neighborhood we lived in together on earth, our families entwined in an elegant dance of love and struggle, is only a dim foreshadow of the place that has been prepared for us by our loving Father in heaven.

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So even though my one friend craves the dry heat of the American Southwest, where she can wear a sweatshirt when it’s 80 degrees outside, the other dreams of a day when she can power out of her crazy driveway on the first try, and I – I am content with the seasons that usher in a new just when it is needed most – even though the vision of our heavenly homes is as distinct as we are –  I am thankful that all eternity awaits for us to finish conversations and sip tea and ponder the wisdom and love of a Father who had the good sense to make us all friends.