A Sad Legacy

It’s been two and a half months since my father died, following a three-year decline inflicted by Parkinson’s Disease. The journey was difficult in many ways, as one might imagine. But with the passing of time, it seems the farther I move away from the finality of it all, the impact becomes more evident.

As his power of attorney for every area of his life, I had a great deal of responsibility on my shoulders. He didn’t always appreciate some of those decisions. For example, a day or so after I returned home with his car keys, he called, angrily chiding me for not trusting him to stop driving. After another couple falls that landed him in the emergency room, malnourished and dehydrated, he fought the needed therapy at a nearby rehab facility. When rehab took him as far as they could, it clearly wasn’t far enough for him to be able to live on his own any longer. I had to find an assisted living facility and arrange a move within a couple weeks—a move he definitely didn’t want to make. Nevertheless, he had no choice but to acquiesce.

From that point, strangely, he seemed to appreciate most of my decisions. He was grateful that a neighbor bought his mobile home and that my sister, wife, and I undertook the seemingly insurmountable task of cleaning, sorting, trashing, packing, and moving his stuff. He really liked his new apartment, deeply appreciated all we did to get it set up, and raved about the food. The enthusiasm was short-lived. Three weeks after getting settled into the apartment, he had yet another fall—apparently due to the disease. It left him unable to “transfer,” which meant he couldn’t remain in an assisted living apartment and would need to move to the full-care “nursing home” wing.

That didn’t go over very well.

He had a very nice, private room, as far as nursing home rooms go. But admittedly, it was a big change—and not a positive one—from the assisted living apartment. I figured this would be his home for, I don’t know, maybe 2-3 years? With a disease like Parkinson’s, one never knows. Anyway, he didn’t adjust very well and simply wasn’t happy. On top of that, it took awhile to realize it, but the disease had affected his ability to swallow properly, so every time he ate or drank something, a portion went into his lungs and they were gradually filling up. Pneumonia developed. Three weeks after his move to the nursing home wing, pneumonia took him to the hospital—and he never left. Three days later, he died with each of his children at his side.

The next day, we sat around a table in the funeral home, making final arrangements. This was tough, but not in the way one might expect. We grappled with what to do about a funeral and visitation. Would anyone even attend? In the end, we opted to have a one-hour visitation preceding a private graveside service for the family. The obituary with pertinent information was sent off to the Elkhart and South Bend (Indiana) newspapers. The memorial cards were printed—100 of them. We selected a guest book for visitors to sign. On the appointed day, we arrived at the funeral home 15 minutes before  the visitation began. An hour later, the guest book had two names in it—one of them a chaplain from the nursing home/assisted living facility. We took 98 cards home, and slowly made our way to the cemetery.

That, I think, was the saddest moment along this whole sad journey.

And yet, I understand…in a way.

You see, my dad was a pastor, which carries certain reasonable expectations. He’d served churches mostly in Ohio and Indiana. Most recently, he ministered for several years in Elkhart, although he’d retired almost two decades earlier. But it wasn’t the passing of time that yielded a meager showing. It grieves me to say it, but it was his life. After all, my mom died two years earlier and dozens of people came to her visitation and funeral.

The difference is, he’d betrayed my mom—and his kids, too, I suppose. And his parishioners. Anyone who knew him well, for that matter. In other words, all the people one would expect to show up to pay last respects simply didn’t have any left to pay.  

A few times that day, and quite a few since, my mind went to a phrase from 2 Chronicles 21 concerning Jehoram, one of the kings of Judah. He didn’t reign all that long—eight brief years. But he made a mess of things because of the corruption he practiced and endorsed. At age forty, he died and we’re told simply, “he reigned in Jerusalem eight years, and he departed without being desired.” Ouch.

Johoram’s sad legacy and—I’m afraid to say—my dad’s, screams at us not to repeat the folly. Learn from the terrible choices, the destructive sin, the alienating behavior, and don’t follow in those footsteps. Leave a better legacy. Let your survivors grieve over your departure and their loss, the void you leave behind…not over the depressing loneliness of an empty funeral parlor and a guest book full of empty lines.