My dad was dying. He’d been on hospice for two weeks. For five days, I’d taken turns in my family’s round-the-clock vigil at his bedside. Dad got anxious if he woke up with no family member nearby. We’d learned this during an earlier hospitalization. He’d doze in his hospital bed, and whomever had been sitting with him might decide to leave the room, stretch legs, get a cup of coffee in the lounge. Next thing, though, Dad would wake up in a panic, agitated because his wife, daughter, or other caregiver was missing.
He thought he’d been abandoned.
At 74, my Dad, Ron, was dying after having had a fine career as a pastor and therapist, after celebrating fifty years of marriage and raising three daughters to stable adulthood.
But Dad was still terrified of being abandoned. It was an old ghost of a feeling which had haunted him his entire life. I call it his primal wound. Dad was in the child welfare system of Alabama shortly after he was born until he and his twin brother were adopted together at five years old. They spent those first years in orphanages and foster care.
Nowadays, psychologists know how critical those first few years are for children
to learn to feel safe and secure. Dad later learned that in at least one of these situations,
his records were marked, “failure to thrive,” which can mean he may have suffered neglect or abusive caregivers. Dad remembered none of this. He only remembered waking up out of a sort of fog, at his adoptive home, seeing his younger twin, Don,
below him on the front porch steps, saying to him, “Well, we’re here now. We might as well make the best of it.” The only memories he had of life before his adoption were two dreamlike images. In one, he saw a dead black snake hung on a barbed-wire fence, in the other, a little white church surrounded by green fields and trees.
After Dad was grown up, several years into his ministry, he met with a counselor who asked him, “Have you ever felt abandoned?” With that question, Dad always said it was as if the bottom dropped out on his universe, as if a huge gaping hole opened up inside his chest. Time seemed to stop as he sobbed. The counselor, who had not expected this reaction, just patted his back while he wept.
That moment led Dad into a birth parent search odyssey. He eventually reunited with his birth mother, but first he met the foster parents, the Browns who had kept Ronnie and Donnie (as they called them) from age 3 to 5. The Browns would have adopted them, but the system did not work in their favor in the 1940s. A box of old photos Mrs. Brown showed Dad revealed that the twins had been loved and seemed to feel secure with their family.
But the first photo on the stack in that old box stopped Dad cold. It was the exact little white clapboard church Dad thought he’d dreamed all these years. It turned out to be Robinson Springs Memorial Methodist Church, a little country church where the twins had been warmly welcomed. “Was there also a snake on a barbed-wire fence?” he asked.
“You remember that!” Mrs. Brown exclaimed, telling him that story. (You can ask me about that one later.)
Flash forward again, back to Dad’s deathbed at a hospice facility. He’d declined quickly. My mother, my two sisters, my Uncle Don, and I had spent hours staying close to him, visiting, laughing, eating together, and singing hymns. Dad could not speak; he had no voice or energy to summon words, but his eyebrows moved up and down as he listened.
He always had such emotive eyebrows and a forehead with furrows ingrained where he’d shown his care.
And though he’d stopped eating and drinking, Dad’s heartbeat had remained rapid, “What a strong heart!” the nurses murmured. But I sensed something else in that rapid heartbeat: panic. That old abandonment ghost stood like a threshold guardian between Dad’s life here and now and the mystery on the other side of death, and in spite of devoted, lifelong faith, Dad was still afraid. I’m the daughter who followed in my Dad’s footsteps to become a pastor. I felt it was my job to help him find the courage
to make the crossing, to let go peacefully into death’s mystery.
Henri Nouwen's image of trapeze artists guided my desire: how could I help Dad entrust himself to God like a trapeze artist letting go of the bar to fly and be caught by his partner? I wanted to give him permission and hold a safe space for him to transition from this life to the next. But we’d already done everything any of us could think of to help. Still Dad's heart beat its anxious rhythm.
Finally, the morning came when Dad’s heartbeat did begin to slow down. My sisters and I met up with Mom at Dad’s bedside. We didn’t know long it would take or what to do now. We sat there, weary and wary, fidgeting and drinking institutional coffee.
Then I had an inspiration. About six months earlier, I had preached a sermon in which I’d told my Dad’s story: the primal wound, the birth-family quest, and the little white church, which I now saw had become the continuity in his life, the place where Dad had never been abandoned. Throughout his ministry, Dad had served in numerous small, rural churches. Those close communities had embraced him, much as the folks in that Alabama church had welcomed a failing-to-thrive foster boy so long ago. So I read my Dad this sermon; I told Dad his own life story, how he’d learned he was a child of God who could never be truly abandoned, in life or in death.
After I finished reading, there was a silence, then Mom said, “Your Dad can be at peace now, because he knows you girls have the message of his life and it will be passed on in all of you.” Immediately after my Mom finished speaking, Dad coughed twice and died.
We sang “God Be with You Til we meet again,” and we wept. And from that day forward I’ve felt commissioned to the work of personal and community storytelling,
because my Dad’s story was a matter of his life and death.