Last year I watched my father die. Like many Parkinsons patients he died not from Parkinsons but from the pneumonia brought on by the disease. Parkinsons impacted his ability to swallow, meaning he inhaled small pieces of food and mucous, which developed into aspirated pneumonia. I looked on helplessly as his body, already frail, shrunken and stooped surrendered. It was distressing to watch this man, who had been a towering giant to me, struggle to breathe.
It was as good a death as we might have hoped. The entire family was present. We each had our opportunity to tell Dad we loved him and to say goodbye.
But it was tragic. I discovered that while the process of dying draws out the best of our humanity as family and friends care for the dying and each other, it does so because it strips a person down, dismantles them, reduces them to a shadow of who they once were.
Death strips away any misplaced belief that we are masters of our fate, conquerors of nature. Ultimately we will all be forced to submit to the ravages of nature, bowed by the tiniest of mutant cells and dodgy DNA.
I am reminded of the apostle Paul’s words that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death.” My faith teaches me that death is the doorway to the presence of God. That may be so, but it does not make death a good. It is an enemy of humankind. Birth-life-death may be the way of things now, but it is not how things were created to be. Alongside the comfort that post-death we may be in the presence of God and one day resurrected, Scripture also protests the presence of death. Dylan Thomas captured it well in a poem about the death of his father:Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
So what do I take from this?
First, I want to live well. I want to make my life everything it can be. I want to be satiated by the beauty of the world; to laugh and cry and dance with my family and friends; to drink deeply of all the good things of God’s earth; to make an impact, to leave an imprint on the lives of others and the creation that is good and wholesome and love-shaped. In the words of the song, I want to live while I’m alive.
Second, living well for me means living life driven by faith. In the Christian account of things death is a limitation imposed by God in response to human sin. If death is the ultimate witness to the fact that I am not master of my fate, it is also a reminder that I live in God’s world, that I am accountable to my Creator. I want to live in a way that honours this.
Third, I hope. Like my father I suffer from Parkinsons. When I watched him die, watched his chest heave as he struggled for breath, I was most likely watching my future. It was a somewhat surreal experience. But as I contemplate my own mortality I am filled with hope, for if death is the last enemy, it is an enemy that Christ will destroy. I live with the hope that death is not the end. There is a resurrection to come, an eternity to share in a new body, on a renewed planet, in a renewed order of things.When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?