To live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go. ~Mary Oliver
The pause let me know something big was coming.
“I handed over the car keys to Frankie yesterday. Won’t be needin’ em anymore.” Harold “Sully” Sullivan’s love of automobiles had left him with respiratory diseases from sucking up a lifetime of fumes. Race car driver, mechanic, sales – cars were the only thing he knew and handing over the keys meant he now knew something else. His reality had irreversibly shifted and he understood what his family and few close friends had feared to know for almost 3 years; he was closer to Heaven than he was to earth. It was time for the big hand-over, time to, in his words, “go home to Jesus.” In less than a year from his epiphany, he would make his journey.
Harold was my first adult Sunday School teacher back in 1968 as part of an independent and rural Pentecostal church. He’d been involved in street ministry to motorcycle gangs and street people who learned to love him as much as we did. He was genuine, pulled no punches and lived his entire life for the glory of God and His Kingdom. I’m not sayin’ that’s the way to go, but it was the cause that gave his life meaning. No stranger to sacrifice, he and his wife, Carrie, helped launch and pioneer several small churches in Ashtabula County, Ohio. Though he sowed his entire life into the Church, what he reaped from the same was heartache and the wounding of his entire family. God knows the tale.
“I hear you had a bad night.” My wife and I arrived at the hospital early, being called by his family, uncertain he was going to make it. “They told me you were expecting Jesus to come.” Sully nodded, expressionless. I couldn’t help but ask, “Soooooo, what happened?”
“He didn’t show up.” And then he smiled. That wasn’t to be the night. False alarms and troubling issues with deteriorating health were exacerbated as he began showing symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Learning to answer questions for the 10th time with the same level of cheeriness as if I’d never heard them before was a simple way to demonstrate love he’d never recognize.
Harold’s final three years were marked by several changes in his behavior including a growing indifference to anything resembling political correctness or what was happening in the world outside his door. Finding no value in television or radio, days were spent talking with his Loves, Jesus and Carrie. From his recliner under the sun-drenched western window he spent long moments gazing at the pictures of his siblings and their youth. With short-term memory gone, and fully expecting to see all of them again, the oasis of Yesterday provided him great solace. And that’s a good thing.
Fortunate to have a daughter and son-in-law who could care for Harold 24-7, he was able to live out his last days in familiar surroundings with his wife of 60 years. The Christian community for which he’d spent his youth gradually forgot to check in on them, and Harold knew what that would mean to Carrie. “Look in on Carrie for me when I’m gone. Will you do that for me?” Old-age seems a lonely place. We all know it’s coming, but we’re never prepared. Not really.
As we age, our world becomes smaller and smaller, until we’re left with nothing but a bed and, if we’ve made wise choices, people who love us standing around it. Being an illegitimate and abandoned child, I’ll never experience what it means for a parent to die. Small consolation, I suppose. Sully was as close to that as I’ll ever come.
His health continued to deteriorate ending with several falls and a broken hip. He was tired, he had “run his race” with honor, and his final years revealed the same spirit that had kept him alive on Anzio Beach when a 19-year old soldier far from Home. He lived and died a hero to many. Harold once told me that the greatest thing that could ever be said of any man is what was said of the Biblical Patriarch Abraham, “He was the friend of God.” That’s how Sully lived his life and that’s how I’ll remember him, the friend of God.
For most of us, it’s not death that concerns us, it’s the act of dying. Uncertain of when “dying a noble death” became part of our consciousness, dying with grace and dealing with its lingering impact are the dual challenges faced by all of us. Grace in the storm is not intuitive, but the Big Handover will demand it of all of us. Selah.
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