Sometimes when I hear or read certain stories from the Gospel, I find myself feeling slightly sorry for Jesus. Was he ever lonely or frustrated that even his closest friends, the disciples, were so often unable to grasp the meaning of what he was telling them? Did he ever yearn for companions who could just get an idea on the first go round, rather than have it filtered through parable or action? The disciples, our stand-ins, can be so literal-minded, so obtuse in their comprehension, that they’re not unlike my dog when I point at her ball, telling her to go get it, and she just stares, bewildered, at my finger. For her, and so often for all of us, there is no meaning beyond what is front and center, right before our eyes.
My dad died of bone marrow cancer when he only 60 years old. He had been diagnosed five years earlier and underwent chemotherapy, the hope being that the chemo could prolong his life long enough for promising advancements in his type of cancer to catch up and save him. But that never happened, and eventually the years of treatment ravaged his body so much that he collapsed from kidney failure. It happened so suddenly that when my brother and I first came to see him in the hospital, even though he was intubated and couldn’t speak, he wrote out a message asking us to bring him the mail. No doubt he thought, in his dutiful way, that he had to stay on top of things during this temporary setback. Three weeks later, the cancer had overtaken him, and my mom, brother and I sat in a waiting room at the hospital as they disconnected him from life support.
As we waited to go in and say goodbye, the pastor from my parents’ church arrived. He was a nice man on the younger side who always struck me as a bit uninspired and awkward, but he suddenly seemed self-assured and wise. He gently told us that sometimes people who are dying are afraid to let their loved ones go, so we had to reassure my dad that it was okay to die. I was surprised. This guy knew how to shepherd the dying into the afterlife? And yet, he seemed so sure of what he was saying that I found his guidance deeply comforting.
Eventually it was time. The hospice nurse met us in the room and told us how much she enjoyed getting to know my dad in the last few weeks and how grateful she was to now help him on his journey to the next stage. Again, my literal, overly critical mind was confounded; how could she have gotten to know him when he was unable to speak and wasn’t fully conscious, having been euphemistically “made comfortable” as he neared death? And did they normally acknowledge different planes of existence at a hospital? But, like the pastor, the nurse radiated warmth, certainty and peace; she, too, seemed to know something I didn’t know.
After the pastor said a prayer, I held one of my dad’s hands while my mom held the other. I leaned in close to him and repeated over and over that I loved him and that it was okay for him to go. Even though he wasn’t fully conscious, I could tell from how his hand held mine that he heard me and was no longer afraid to let go. Not long afterward, his hand grew cold. The grief that would later never go away was suddenly silent, and instead I was flooded with an overwhelming sense of gratitude and peace. Some of that feeling came from within: gratitude that I was able to be there for him in the last moment of his life, and immense peace in the knowledge that he was finally free, from his body and from the cancer, that he would no longer be plagued with worry about what the latest test results meant or when his last Christmas
would be. But as I reflect now, I know this feeling was coming from outside me as well. Something was in the room with us, something I think both the pastor and the nurse knew would be there, and it was holding us in strong, radiant love—love for my father as he was released into eternity, and love for us who remained behind.
I want to say that I was able to experience God’s presence in that moment because the limitations of my comprehension, which the Gospels capture so well, briefly fell away. But, like Pentecost, God was the only one doing the doing in that room. He came down to my level, not me up to his. Unmediated through story or description, not summoned by my middling faith or a crisis-bound receptiveness to the Spirit, God was just suddenly there with us, concretely present and unmistakable, a real experience of all-encompassing love that I saw myself, with my own heart.