Dying to Live Excerpts
EXCERPT ONE Summer 1959
Daddy was still on the phone! We found him standing at the public pay phone just around the corner from our cottage at the beach. With one hand holding the phone to his ear and his free hand waving about in the air, his face was flushed with exasperation. Even so we interrupted his conversation: “Daddy, when can we go?” His answer was brief, barely spoken, but his message was clear: “Don’t bother me now!” My two sisters and I were impatient to start our outing to the San Diego Zoo. Preparations for our departure had dragged on all morning. Would we ever leave? Why did his work have to interrupt our vacation?
For the second summer in a row we were staying at The Beach Cottages, family-owned beachfront rentals just south of La Jolla, California. It was 1959, the summer after my eighth grade year at Townsend Junior High School in Tucson. We were all happy to escape the Arizona heat for a week in July.
But the tension in our cramped two-bedroom vacation apartment seemed palpable. Daddy was nervous and stressed. Although we girls did not know it at the time, the Bank of Douglas, where our father was a senior vice president, was in the midst of a challenging upheaval. My father had barely been able to get away from the office for a week. Now at the beach, he was on the phone constantly and paid even less attention to his teenage daughters than usual.
Nevertheless our week was not a total loss. In spite of the long wait before setting off for our family excursion to the zoo, eventually we all enjoyed the day. Throughout the rest of the week, we girls spent hours at the beach and hung out in our cottage, playing Monopoly and Canasta and reading novels. Although I longed for my father’s attention, it was not unusual for him to be physically present but unavailable to his three daughters. So I enjoyed the time with my sisters, but I especially looked forward to the evening hours when I would walk down to the seashore by myself.
At the time the adjacent beach was public, but there were seldom many people spoiling the peaceful atmosphere. It was just like my own private beach. One evening as I sat alone gazing at the ocean, I was especially moved by the surrounding beauty and solitude. Perched atop a large rock, wearing a sweatshirt and rolled up jeans, I wiggled my toes in the wet sand. Mesmerized by the waves washing ashore, I stared at the sun as it began to drop below the horizon. Motionless, I watched it transform from pale yellow to gold and finally to a bright orange glow -- no longer a circle. Almost hexagonal. Lost in the moment, I was filled with a sense of awe.
Spellbound, I looked out over the ocean. How enormous it seemed compared to my surroundings! How overwhelming it was to think of this vast body of water! How incomprehensible was the distance from the coast of California to the South China Sea! Suddenly, an activity came to mind -- an exercise I had concocted a few months earlier. Starting with the size of my bedroom, and continuing to our home, I visualized a number of larger geographic entities gradually moving from my own neighborhood to the town of Tucson, Maricopa County, the state of Arizona, the United States, North America, and the world. Remembering my studies from eighth grade science, I then imagined the solar system, our galaxy, the Milky Way and beyond.
Considering the magnitude of the universe, my existence appeared utterly insignificant compared to the size of even the city of Tucson. And I wondered how everything came to exist, how God had created such beauty and splendor in nature, and what this Supreme Being was like. This speculation eventually resulted in more perplexing questions: “What was the purpose of life?” and “Why am I here?”
Although these thoughts were perplexing, still I delighted in my private time at the beach each night. The immensity of the ocean and the splendor of the sun setting over the water filled me with wonder, and the sound of the waves beckoned to me. I felt as though I were part of some larger design. This feeling satisfied a craving within me.
Finally as the sky grew dark, I returned to our cottage feeling inspired, at least momentarily. Then as I turned off the light after reading in bed, the memory of that radiant sunset was obscured by a deep melancholy. My emptiness was compounded by the alienation I felt from Daddy. Eventually I fell asleep with a hunger for something more -- not just love and attention, but a sense of belonging and a reason for being.
EXCERPT TWO February 1969
Our first few years of married life were grand. We were young and in love, and even the cockroaches that repeatedly invaded our second-story apartment in Pomona couldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for life together. I had found the love of my life.
My happiness was due in part to Tim’s family. Being Tim’s wife meant that I belonged to a close-knit, “huggy” clan of people who were delighted that I had become a member of their tribe. My relationships with the Piatts gave me a strong sense of security. This is what I had longed for all my life. A husband to love me and a family that made me feel special. So this is what I had been missing, I thought!
Family gatherings were frequent and loads of fun. Even in the event of mishaps everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. There is no better example of this joyful family atmosphere than the first time I baked a cake for my mother-in-law. With great anticipation I had carefully followed the suggestions on the back of the box to create a special birthday cake for Tim’s mom. Starting with the yellow cake mix, I added cream cheese, orange juice, grated orange peel, and orange extract -- an ambitious attempt for a young bride who often cooked hotdogs or store-bought packages of noodles and seasonings for a hamburger casserole. Baking the cake in our cramped kitchen had been a challenge. It was a great personal triumph for me that it turned out perfectly.
When we arrived at the birthday party, I promptly showed off my masterpiece. Everyone “ooh-ed” and “aah-ed” as I paraded through the living room and entered the kitchen to place the cake-carrier on top of the refrigerator until it was time to light the candles. After the meal, I walked into the kitchen to retrieve the cake from its perch on the refrigerator. As I grabbed the handle and began to lower the cake, I discovered that I had failed to twist the lid to secure the top of the carrier to the platter on the bottom. In horror I watched helplessly as the entire cake slid down the edge of the wall next to the refrigerator, landing in a heap on the kitchen floor. Dazed, I thought about all the time and energy it had taken me to make this birthday offering for Tim’s mother, Audrey. Tears welled up in my eyes. I was simply devastated. Suddenly my sister-in-law, Lynn, walked into the room. As she spotted the ruined cake on the floor, she burst out laughing.
It was impossible not to join her. Lynn was so loving and compassionate that no one could resist laughing with her. As other family members gathered to see what all the commotion was about, my sister-in-law started placing candles in that sorry mound. After singing “Happy Birthday” to Audrey, we then scraped up "safe" gobs of cake from the part that hadn't touched the floor, serving generous spoonfuls of “orange delight” to everyone in the Piatt family.
How dissimilar this reaction was from the constant nervous tension in the home I grew up in! If such a catastrophe had happened at my parents’ house during my teen or college years, it would have been met with great agitation. There would have been an anxious to-do about the cleaning up, and my parents would never have eaten cake off the floor!
Daily life with the Piatt clan meant love and laughter in equal measures. How I loved belonging to this family! Perhaps I was oblivious those first few years to the reality that my new-found family had their own foibles and failures. Later I would learn that Tim’s upbringing was far from idyllic or stable. However, based on my still-limited knowledge of Tim’s family, I thought they were just perfect. Finally, I felt accepted and well-loved.
As the years went by, however, I began to experience an inexplicable ache -- a nagging need I wanted Tim to satisfy, but this void was something he couldn’t fill. I have distinct memories of thinking about the futility of life and feeling adrift again. One Sunday, after a perfectly lovely afternoon at the beach, I was suddenly overcome with melancholy.
Tim had a special relationship with his favorite Aunt May, with whom he shared a birthday. For many years he would travel to Seal Beach to celebrate their big day together. Now I was an integral part of those birthday dinners. After one leisurely afternoon visit at May’s place near the beach, Tim and I were heading back to our small three-bedroom house we had purchased that year from his oldest brother Jim. The day with Tim’s aunt had been near perfect. After a light lunch, we played Aunt May’s favorite version of three-handed bridge, and then we all walked down to the sand, cooling our feet as the water splashed on our clothes. Tim and I said our good-byes to May and climbed into our light blue ’65 Ford Mustang sedan feeling carefree and content.
As we returned home, the traffic was unusually heavy. Soon I began to notice that both sides of the freeway were littered with billboards. All around us was a conglomeration of signs and telephone poles and junky storefronts. Without warning, my heart flooded with sadness. The marked contrast of the commercial clutter to the natural beauty of that sunny afternoon at the beach overwhelmed me. Suddenly my life seemed meaningless, and I was consumed with one thought. “What’s it all for?”
It wasn’t that I was dissatisfied with our marriage or my relationship with Tim, or even with my job teaching French and Social Studies, but for a few brief moments my life seemed pointless. I was as lonely as I had been on a gloomy evening at Pomona College in 1964 with no boyfriend and no church affiliation. Now, I had not just a boyfriend, but a husband who loved me. So why was I overwhelmed with the same ache, the same emptiness I had known several years earlier? Confused, I sat beside my husband in silence the rest of the way home. I didn’t know why I felt so depressed.
And I never told Tim.
EXCERPT THREE September 1987
Suddenly it was our turn to say good-bye. Wendy went in first, then me, and finally our youngest sister, Trisha. When it was my turn, I walked down the hallway to my father's small private room. How I longed to be able to talk with him as I had just weeks earlier!
On top of the enormous sense of impending loss, I was concerned about how he would spend eternity. There had never been any evidence that Daddy believed in the redemption that Christ accomplished on the cross at Calvary. Furthermore, I had never had the courage to tell him that Jesus says in the Bible: “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6 ESV 10) How could I summon the strength to tell him the unparalleled message of the gospel in these last precious moments?
When he first realized I was in the room, he made a futile effort to open his eyes, managing only to make his eyelids flutter. His boney hand lifted two inches off the bed, reaching toward me. I took his hand and stroked it gently, feeling apprehension about what to do, what to say and what not to say. I had never spent any intimate time with someone this close to death. For that matter, I had never spent such intimate time with my father!
How could I tell him what I believed he so desperately needed to hear? Perhaps due to the immaturity of my own relationship with Christ, I was afraid that I would upset Daddy by talking about things for which he had previously shown such distaste. The idea that I might actually hasten his death by talking about the Lord invaded my thoughts. This was followed by an awful anxiety regarding how my sisters and my mother would feel if something happened to him right after I went in to see him. How much it grieves me now to think that my own fears overshadowed my desire to share the love of Christ with my father in the final hours of his life on earth. In the end, all I was able to choke out was the following: "Daddy, I love you so much! And Jesus loves you more than I do. He can forgive you for anything you need to be forgiven for." Not much of a bold witness for Christ, but it was all I could manage at the time. And it just may have been exactly what God had purposed for me to say.
Daddy seemed to take in what I was saying, and he struggled to open his eyes ever so briefly. Then with great effort he raised his arm toward my face. Of course, I will never know what he was thinking at that moment, but I do believe that he heard what I was saying to him and understood my love and concern for him, as well as something of the plea I was making to him. More importantly I now know with certainty that the awesome Creator of the universe is able -- the only One able -- to cause a heart to understand the need for His forgiveness and salvation even at the moment of death. What comfort there was to see my father's valiant effort to respond to what I was saying to him!
When all three of us had spent time alone with Daddy, we said goodnight to Mom and spoke to the nurses before we left. They reassured us that we could and should call them at any hour of the night if we had questions or wanted to check on his condition. At this point it was 7:00 pm, and we realized we had not eaten since late morning. One of us, perhaps Wendy, suggested that we go out to dinner. Before mom was hospitalized she had expressed a desire to take us all to eat one night. The vote was unanimous that under these circumstances, she would have wanted us to use her credit card to do just that. We made reservations at the dining room of a lovely old inn in town. Mom’s favorite. None of us were dressed for Saturday night dinner out, but it would have to do.
After three days of getting little sleep and giving constant support to our mother, all the while agonizing over our father’s condition, we needed a chance to decompress and fortify ourselves for the coming days. Before long we were giving our orders to the waitress. Then, just as she left our table, we dissolved into bouts of giggling.
What a welcome relief from all the pain and anguish! How amazing it is that our Creator has made us with an innate ability to experience the healing power of laughter during times of deep sorrow. That evening in His love and mercy, God provided us the respite we needed -- a break we would surely need to prepare for a cruel, dark night.
One incident at this four-star establishment resulted in an expression we all still use to encourage each other to let go of unwarranted feelings of guilt. As we waited for our food to arrive, Trisha mentioned feeling bad about something. Perhaps she confessed feeling guilty about sitting in the finest restaurant in town -- using our mother's credit card to pay for a delicious meal, while Mom and Daddy were only blocks away in the cardiac unit of the hospital. Or it could have been something much less significant. But somehow in response to her comment, we began to throw little pink and blue packets of sugar substitute at each other with no regard for what other customers in the dining room might think about our silliness. I was the instigator, admonishing Trisha to throw sugar packs as if she were casting off guilt. “Toss those sugar packs away!” I declared.
As the eldest daughter, Wendy felt a huge burden of responsibility, since our mother was all but incapacitated. She decided to do something -- something to control some of our circumstances. Perhaps she could control the wild and inappropriate behavior of her two younger sisters! She made a half-hearted attempt to get us to behave, at which point we all fell into fits of laughter. Here we were, three grown women in our late thirties or forties, about to lose our father, uncertain about the condition of our mother, and thousands of miles from our homes. Yet we were worrying about what strangers would think of us; almost as if Trisha and I were elementary-age school children, and Wendy, the teenager, was trying to make sure her little sisters did not besmirch the family name.
That night as we arrived at Mom's friend's house, our temporary home away from home, we were all three ready to turn in for the night. I called to check in with Tim, and as soon as I hung up the phone and climbed in bed, I fell into a deep sleep.
It did not last long.
EXCERPT FOUR April 2004
When my sister Wendy walked into the room at noon, I filled her in as best I could. She had not seen Mom since the night before, and it was clear that our mother’s condition had declined dramatically since then. It was now a two-person job to comfort Mom during the unrelenting muscle spasms, so my sister and I spent the next few hours together. One of us would sit on one side of the bed holding her hand. The other sister would lie down next to our mother on the other side of her bed -- like “spoons in a drawer.” Mom was extremely agitated, fearful we would leave her alone. If the sister holding her hand moved ever so slightly to change position, Mom would cry out, “Don’t go! Don’t go!” We would quickly reassure her that we were not going to leave. Nevertheless, any time either one of us budged, she became frantic. Eventually, we resorted to a curious routine when it was time for the “changing of the guard.” The sister clutching our mother’s hand would scoot way up to the front edge of the chair, and the other sister (the one acting as the “spoon”) would hurry around the end of the bed and scramble into the same chair from behind. In this way we could trade places to relieve our aching backs without distressing Mom too much. This awkward exercise went on for over ninety minutes, but our concern was eased knowing we were comforting Mom as much as we possibly could.
There is one especially vivid memory I have of that afternoon. Wendy was on the window side of the bed in the “spoon” position with her arms draped around my mother’s body. Facing Mom and holding one of her hands, I was talking to her quietly and stroking her hair. At one point my sister and I locked eyes across our mother’s beleaguered body. Not a word was spoken between us, but somehow in that moment, we silently communicated our pain and grief and doubt and even anger. Simultaneously, we both knew we were having the same thought: “This is not what Mom had signed on for!”
To be fair, our mother had chosen to refuse any heavy narcotics until our younger sister returned from Wisconsin. After Trisha left on Tuesday morning, Dr. Allen explained to Mom that any strong depressant could slow down her respiration, perhaps hastening death. For that reason she chose not to take anything too strong. We knew it was due to Mom’s choice that she was experiencing such discomfort. Still it was painful to witness and to feel helpless to do anything about it.
Mom was trying with all her might to “hold on” until Trisha got back. Every time the effects of the muscle relaxant wore off, Mom would renew her pleas for Trisha -- all the while twitching and jerking involuntarily. She would punch out short, anxious phrases, which required all the strength she could muster. “Trish’ here?!” she would ask breathlessly. We could only tell her that Trisha would be here tomorrow, but this fact did little to reassure her.
All afternoon we gave her the ice chips and wet her cracked lips with the foam rubber swabs kept in a cup of water by her bedside. We checked the time, hoping to hurry the minute-hand around the face of the clock. We stroked her forehead and tried to comfort her as she cried out over and over, “Trisha here yet?” Or sometimes just “Trish-UH!” When she wasn’t asking about our sister, she would beg us: “Don’t go!” and “Make it stop!” as the muscle spasms began their assault.
Wendy and I became concerned about whether our mother would be able to hang on until our sister returned the next day. So we telephoned Trisha in Wisconsin to tell her how bad it was -- how Mom was calling for her constantly. This news broke Trisha’s heart. She tried to get a plane out that night with no success; the best she could do was to re-schedule her flight for earlier Thursday morning.
Sometime in the middle of the afternoon, after her muscle relaxant had taken effect, Mom fell asleep. Leaving my sister to tend to our mother, I decided to return to the apartment for a nap. As I walked past the nurse’s station, one of the LPN’s assigned to my mother saw me and asked how I was doing. Before I could answer her question, she reached out to touch my shoulder. This simple act of kindness pierced through my practiced effort to stay strong for Mom and my sister Wendy. My eyes clouded up, my throat choked with unspoken words, and my body began to collapse underneath me. Not trusting myself to speak, I gave in to the tears spilling down my cheeks.
The nurse interpreted my expression as guilt. She asked if there was something I wished I would have done for my mother. Laughing out loud through my tears, I said, “No. Not at all! I know I’ve done everything I could have done. I’m so grateful I’ve had all this time with her this year! I just need to cry.”
With a look of understanding, she led me down the hall to a locked room. This bereavement room was available to family members who were visiting infirm or dying parents. Pointing out a phone in case I needed to make any calls, she said I could stay as long as I wished. I thanked her and sat down near a conspicuous box of tissues. Before long I was on my knees, my head leaning forward onto the seat of a chair. I wept freely -- great convulsive sobs of sorrow and exhaustion. For several days I had not been getting enough sleep, and I was physically and emotionally drained.
Besides, there was something else weighing on my heart. Up until that Wednesday I had been busy working out time for my girls with their grandmother and making long, involved, late-night phone calls to change their itineraries. Now my children had gone home, my mother was failing fast, and I was faced with the possibility that I had lost my chance to have a meaningful conversation with her! Time was running out.
As I cried and prayed, my anxiety faded. God had kept Mom from dying just one week earlier. How could I have forgotten those verses from the fourth chapter of Philippians -- the ones that had ministered to me so many years earlier when I was called back east to my father’s bedside.
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil 4:6-7)
My burden lifted. And God’s comfort and peace flooded my heart.
EXCERPT FIVE February 2010
Our car was a wreck! However, I was able to access the trunk and the glove compartment. While I began to gather our things, Darren had the presence of mind to take pictures with his cell phone. When he returned to where Tim was waiting, Darren leaned into the window to show his father-in-law pictures of our mangled car. Right away Tim saw the look of anguish on his son-in-law’s face. It seemed to be saying: “I am so glad you somehow escaped this catastrophe without being maimed or killed! I cannot comprehend how you were not hurt much worse in this accident!” At that moment, my husband finally understood the magnitude of the collision, and tears flooded his eyes.
Tim doesn’t remember whether he slept well that night or not. He did have the aid of his pain meds. However, I was not able to get much sleep—the events of the day constantly running through my mind. I do remember driving to Cornerstone Community Church the next morning with a truly thankful heart. Tim was not only alive, he wasn’t even seriously injured. There were no broken bones—not even any stitches or abrasions.
There had been many circumstances on Saturday morning that determined the outcome of Tim’s accident.
•Tim slowed down when he noticed it was drizzling.
•He wasn’t knocked unconscious from the initial impact.
•In spite of the presence of other traffic, every driver somehow managed to avoid colliding with our car.
•The airbag failed to deploy, so Tim was not disabled in any way.
•He had time to maneuver away from the sheer drop-off.
•He had the clarity of mind to put the car in neutral and to turn off the engine.
•The off-ramp was close by.
If any one of these particulars had been different, the result could have been tragic. Tim had come through this incident virtually unscathed, which seemed just short of miraculous. Surely God was in control. As grateful as I was that Tim had escaped calamity, the greatest awe I felt was in the realization that God is always sovereign. He is always good. Regardless of the circumstances, regardless of the outcome, God is always worthy of our praise!
After attending church that Sunday morning, my thoughts returned to the Fuller family. Just seventeen months earlier, Walt had been tragically killed in the Metrolink train crash, and my friend Jenny had exhibited such faith and strength. She and her three children responded with praise and thanksgiving that Walt was with God for eternity. Although they each grieved deeply, there was no animosity toward the Metrolink engineer, no self-pity voiced out loud, and most of all no public questioning of the goodness of God. It was clear to all that their faith and trust in God were real.
Moving back and forth across the boundaries of faith and fear, for the second time in twenty-four hours I wondered, “Could I have done the same?”