O Come! O Come!
Throughout the Advent season, I’m reflecting on some of those whom I’ve been blessed to know who serve as reminders–both in their living, as well as in their dying–of Jesus’ purpose for coming to earth so long ago. (Last week’s was about my dear friend Bethany Enloe.) In their echoes, we’re also reminded that He will return, and remembering them–painful though it may be–encourages us to proclaim, “O, come, Lord Jesus! Come!”
One year ago today–12/10/19–he stepped from earth’s path into Heaven’s splendor to hear his Savior say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And that’s a comfort, because believing this brings peace despite his absence. Still, we miss him here, wish we’d had more time.
Watching Dad Denny in his final days was a firm, uncomfortable reminder that, because of this world’s imperfections, one’s body isn’t made to last forever, and when cancer’s the culprit, the end isn’t usually pretty, nor painless.
Thanksgiving Day was the first real sign for us that sickness was vying for attention, trying hard to win, and though we didn’t say so in his hearing, we were worried. He was different that day–nibbling at food rather than digging in. He’d requested sweet tea, and I kicked myself for not having any–quickly setting to work at the stove to brew some, my meal growing cold. No matter. Sweet tea was of utmost priority.
After the meal, we presented him with Daisy the Circus Dog–made possible by my husband and nephew. The writing of it had come miraculously in late summer after a pleading prayer–Please, God! Give me the words to finally make this story a reality for Denny, before it’s too late.
He’d only been asking me–teasing me–to write it for years. “One day,” I’d say. Little did I know that one day was limited. Had I known, I’d have likely started sooner, but then, perhaps I wouldn’t have given God the credit due Him, or, in my humanness, I’d have tried to steal some of it. The way He showed up, however, left nothing to question.
As it turned out, the story depicting Denny’s dog Daisy–the one he always affectionally called his “Circus Dog”–was written in merely a handful of minutes, and I knew something–Someone!–was at work in and through me. Not that it will ever be an award-winning story, but it captured the essence of a cockapoo in a manner that made Denny smile, and that’s what mattered most.
Indeed, Dad Denny smiled through tears on that day when we gave him his wish, and we beamed with delight, though our hearts ached a bit. We knew that he was hurting behind the happiness, and so the moment was bittersweet, though all we selfishly desired was the sweet. It didn’t seem too much to ask, seeing that it was the day set apart for gratitude and pumpkin pie… and, as it turned out, sweet tea. Blasted bitter!
It was a week or so later when Allie and I joined my in-laws for dinner–delivering their favorite carryout. I remember noticing how, similar to Thanksgiving, Denny didn’t dive in but just picked at his food.
After eating, my mother-in-law Faith suggested we read the Advent devotion, and though feeling shy and uncertain, I obliged when she asked me to sing the closing hymn. It was then, though I don’t think I understood it at the time, that God began to loosen my grip–helped me let go of the man I’d known and loved for many years.
“O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel”
Dad Denny’s eyes were closed as I sang, and I wondered if he was praying–perhaps asking to be ransomed from the body held captive by cancer. What began in his bladder, he’d undergone robotic surgery in early August, and we’d held on with hope that such would bring a cure, but by mid-October, we were told the disease had spread.
Hence, the heaviness of November which brought us to December and a crying out, Oh, come on, God! Do a miracle! And if faith only needs to be mustard seed-sized, we all believed He could do it. The lingering question of whether He would was uncomfortable. The not knowing–that feeling of having no control–was a battle, and much like a cat being pet backwards, I, for one, hissed my complaint. Oh, come on, God! Heal this man!
So, when my singing ceased that December night, I saw Denny, eyes still closed, nodding his head, and I thought to myself, Maybe he heard an answer in the second verse, perhaps was given his own glimmer of hope in the lyrics.
“O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel”
On our next visit only days later, Denny was comfortable in bed. He was cheerful and chatty, taking pleasure in remembering–talking of times past and laughing. His son-in-law Khris had flown in from Idaho, and they reminisced about playing Euchre, how they always won against the women. Becky, Khris’s wife and Denny’s daughter, chuckled, “Yeah, ’cause you two always cheated!” and Faith nodded her agreement.
Never one to fully understand the game, I sat quietly, taking in the scene. Even talk of cards felt holy somehow–the sharing of treasured memories all part of a trove of good gifts. The ground was sacred, as though God Himself was near, smiling at the conversation that brought delight. Words that kept the past alive kept death at bay, and that’s just where we wanted it. Stay away, we each silently pleaded, fighting the feeling that cancer was trying to cheat us out of time.
Oh the irony when Denny spoke up, “Come here.” He motioned for my husband Bill to sit beside him on the bed. “Let me rub your shoulders.”
What? This man who was weak and frail, whose own back was riddled with tumors, desired to massage his son’s shoulders–ease his tensions, offer a gift—and we sat astonished. Not that Denny wasn’t generous. Far from it! He loved to give good gifts, but it was a sort of joke in our family that he always loved a good back rub and was often the recipient of such rather than the render-er.
Concerned he’d overexert himself, Bill hesitated, offering instead to rub Denny’s feet–give a gift rather than receive. But Denny was persistent. Always the gentle salesman, he worked to convince Bill to let him rub his shoulders, as though he was persuading him to purchase a piece of furniture at Sellman’s. Though uncertain, Bill finally conceded, and in saying yes, gave his dying father a gift in return.
And only a few days later, Bill said yes again. Denny had been moved to a hospital bed in the front room, surrounded by the comfort of Christmas lights, praise and worship songs softly playing. “Are you here, Bill?” he’d asked with eyes closed, and his son replied, “Yes,” as he stepped up to the bedside, took Denny’s hand. “Yes, I’m here.”
A faint smile told us Bill’s presence, as well as the presence of his son Matthew, who’d arrived from Atlanta, and others–daughters, grandchildren, his niece and sister, and, of course, Faith–brought Denny reassurance. After all, without a last minute miracle, he, too, would soon step up, only hours from stepping over that threshold from pain into healing, disease into the Divine. And though merely a step, such was unfamiliar territory, and fear hadn’t yet been defeated. His family being there was an obvious gift to Denny–something that gave him courage to face the impending unknown.
Though there were moments of discomfort, indications of death’s nearness, this man–one who never really appreciated adventure and was, by his own admittance, uncomfortable with change–faced this unfolding mystery with dignity and grace. The space–filled with those who loved him, those who didn’t want to see him go–was once again holy, and the final few hours were, for the most part, peaceful. Thankfully, near the end, Dad Denny didn’t appear to be in pain.
Allie and I left around 8:00 PM on that starry December 10th night. We talked quietly on the drive home–imagining in whispers what Heaven would be like and who Papaw would see first. “I think it’ll be Jesus,” Allie had said, and I smiled, thankful she understood.
After she was tucked in to bed, I sat silently by the Christmas tree. When the phone rang at nearly 10:30, I knew. Bill’s voice was tired but relieved. “He’s gone.”
And at that moment, I looked out the window to see snow falling–large flakes from Heaven, almost as though God, having received a Gift, was asked to give one in return, and, to my surprise, I didn’t feel cheated.
Instead, I heard in my heart,
“…Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight…”
Some time later, I read the history of this ancient carol–the one I sang on that evening I began to let go–and discovered that this song is a metrical hymn, written in the common 88.88.88 meter scheme. The number eight symbolizes “new beginnings,” and the message seemed clear. Dad Denny was still giving–desiring for those who were grieved to hear that which might bring peace and hope, even though we hurt.
And like a ripple created by a pebble tossed in a pond, we’re to herald his echo, despite our missing him so. It’s the message Denny lived, the message he’s living still–something we can, in turn, offer to a weary, waiting world:
Jesus–Emmanuel, God with us–is coming again.
Dear Savior of the world–Thank you for the Gift of Denny, whose life pointed many to you in the simple ways of service and sacrifice. Please tell him we miss him and that we look forward to the day when we will see him again. Our prayer, too, is found in this ancient hymn–O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.