I have counseled you before, and it bears repeating, to be careful and deliberate in choosing your words when you are attending the bedside of a person who is dying or in such a serious condition that he appears to be unconscious and incognizant to your presence. People who are too weak to open their eyes may nevertheless be sensitive to what you are saying to them or about them and your words may help them or hurt them depending on what you say. They say that the hearing is the last thing to go; so make sure when you are ministering to a dying soul that your last words spoken in their presence are loving and truthful.
Let me offer a case in point. My Dad had been bedridden in a nursing home for several days in a terribly weakened condition. Parkinson’s disease had paralyzed his throat muscles making it almost impossible for him to swallow. Despite our best efforts and his to give him something to eat and drink, he was virtually unable to take nourishment or fluid into his body. After a week of this torture he was exhausted and found it more to his comfort to lay with his eyes closed sleeping or trying to sleep. One afternoon, he had been quietly resting with his eyes closed. We thought he was asleep, when an aide entered the room to visit. You know how those encounters go. We were all whispering, trying not to wake him. We, then, in hushed tones introduced our father to this new person who would be caring for him. We wanted her to see him as a real person, not just another patient on a bed. In the course of relating pertinent biographical information about him to the aide, his beloved daughter-in-law interjected that he had served in the Army in World War II, at which point Dad opened his eyes, sat upright in bed and said forcefully, without hesitation, “I was in the Marines!” We laughed. He laughed and my wife, who doesn’t know the halls of Montezuma from the shores of Tripoli, stood corrected.
Those of you who, like my Dad, were around in the 1940s know what he was saying. My Dad, Ralph String, graduated from high school in May of ’45 and at the tender age of 17 enlisted in the Marines. On Friday June 13th of that year, his mother took him to the train station in Cleveland, Ohio, where he boarded a train for South Carolina; destination: Parris Island. Once there, he would over 90 days train for the planned invasion of Japan. You will not hear me criticize President Truman for dropping atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Had we not done that, had we invaded Japan, Ralph String and a hundred thousand other graduates of the class of ‘45 like him surely would have died; I would not have been born and we wouldn’t be here this morning.
But thanks be to God, the Japanese surrendered unconditionally in August of ’45. Shortly after that, Ralph was sent to Providence Rhode Island where he peacefully served out the remainder of his enlistment. One weekend when he had leave, he took a train to Washington, DC, to visit his high school sweetheart. Barbara was a student there at Marjorie Webster, a finishing school, as they used to call it. Two weeks prior to his visit, having learned of Barbara’s desire to see this young man with whom she had gone, the year before, to the senior prom, the headmistress of the school wrote to my Grandfather to ask if his daughter had permission to leave campus to see young Ralph String. My grandfather, who was at the time the senior attorney for the White Sewing Machine Company in Cleveland, dictated a two page letter to his secretary outlining the strict conditions under which Ralph might visit his daughter Barbara. That visit took place in June of ’46. Three years later Ralph and Barbara were married. Three years later I came along, the first of what would become a family with three boys, and the rest, as they say, is history.
My intention this morning is not to bore you with the tiring details of my Dad’s biography or brag to you of his many achievements. But I am proud of him. He amassed one of the three biggest and best collections of political campaign buttons in the United States and generously donated that collection to the Cleveland City Club where it is on permanent display. He was for many years the three cushioned billiard champion at the Cleveland Athletic Club, representing the club in many national and international tournaments. And he was recognized in Fortune magazine once as one of the fifty leading stock brokers in America. His three sons, he grandson and business partner each spoke at his funeral which went on for an hour and a half. All five speakers wept and said essentially the same thing: He was our hero. And he was a man of great faith. He was raised in the Evangelical and Reformed tradition. His grandfather, The Reverend Jesse String, was the minister at the local church, so it’s no surprise that Ralph had perfect Sunday school attendance for all his years up to college. But he was proud of his son who became an Episcopal priest and to be supportive of me he and my mother both joined the Episcopal Church and were confirmed the same year that I entered seminary. When we repaired the windows here at St. George’s and St. Mathew’s, he and my mother donated the ascension window above our high altar. He loved this congregation and every Sunday afternoon when I’d call him after church to talk things over, he would always ask about all of you.
Things happen for a reason, though we often don’t see until much later what the reason was. My daughter Emile along with her husband and two children were in Cincinnati the last week of September to attend a wedding. After the wedding, instead of flying straight home as they had planned, Emile said to her husband, “I think we should drive up to Cleveland and visit grandpa.” Craig agreed. They called Dad and asked if they could come to visit. He loved the idea. But we learned later that after the call he ominously told his care-giver, “I know why they’re coming.” Why?” she asked. “It’s the last time.” They drove up to see him on a Wednesday. He made a special effort to be up and dressed that day. He pushed himself and stayed awake and didn’t take a nap as he otherwise would have done. They had lunch together and took pictures. The last picture ever taken of Ralph shows him holding his granddaughter Barbara, named after the girl he took to the senior prom, his wife of 60 years, on his lap. Emilie, Craig and the grandchildren left late in the afternoon. Dad immediately went to lie down saying he was exhausted. That night his caregiver called 911. He had a urinary tract infection that had become septic.
As soon as I heard about it, I made plans to travel to Cleveland. I caught an early flight Monday morning from BWI to Cleveland. With my carry-on in hand, I then took a cab to the University Hospital By 10am I was standing by his bedside. He woke up when I entered the room. It was October 3rd. I said, “Dad, Happy Birthday!” “How old am I? He asked. “89” I said.” That’s impossible,” he said, “I never thought I’d be 89. Good to see ya.” He then closed his eyes and drifted back to sleep.
It’s sad to be with your parent who’s dying, but that’s not to say that the event is without its good moments. God’s grace knows no bounds. The Lord said to Saint Paul “My power is made perfect in your weakness”; in other words when we’re at our lowest, God’s grace is often most abundant. That was the case with my Dad; the last two weeks of his life were overflowing with love and even in the midst of imminent death, we found joy.
I arrived on Monday. Wednesday, he transferred by ambulance from the hospital to a nursing home, the same facility to which we had taken my mother six years before. The goal in taking him there was to do therapy, in hopes that Dad would get well enough to go home again. But it became clear quickly that he had moved beyond therapy. A proud man who had lived 60 years in the same home was not going to accept in a nursing home. I was supposed to come home Thursday but that afternoon I watched my Dad struggling in vain to do the exercises and it hit me like a ton of bricks in the chest that he was not able to do this. And I said to myself, “My Dad’s dying.” I called Conni and said, “I can’t come home.” That night I retired to my father’s house, sat in his favorite chair and cried for thirty minutes. It doesn’t really matter how old you are or how old your parents are, or how strong your faith is in the resurrection, when death comes for your Mom or Dad, it’s a sad day. But faith is a real strength. Sunday morning, after only three full days in the nursing home he looked me in the eye and said, “I’m not going to live.” I said, “Dad we all love you and want you to live.” He said in a whisper, “I’m not doing this anymore.” I sighed and said, “How do you feel?” he thought it over and said, “I feel confident.”
I knew what that meant. I immediately went out into the hall and called my brother who said, “We need to take him home, now.” I agreed. I went back into the room by his bedside and said, “Dad, we’re getting out of here and going home.” “Good, I hate this place,” he said.” Well”, I said, resigning myself to face the end, “when we get home I’ll pour you an Old Granddad.” He used to like to have a drink before dinner.” He looked at me and smiled. “Thanks,” he said, “that’ll finish me off.” We both laughed.
You wouldn’t think that there’d be much laughter when a soul is dying, but God blessed us throughout those final days with a lot of holy laughter. We got Dad home and under hospice care. I can’t say enough good things about Western Reserve Hospice. They were compassionate and attentive. We got the hospital bed set up in his bedroom, right in front of the TV so we could watch the Indians in the World Series. We’re talking about a devout life-long Indians fans here, a guy who vividly remembered the 1948 World Series and bragged that he once had Bob Feller as a customer, the Indians star pitcher who led them to the championship. One afternoon he asked me, “What time’s the game?” “Not until 8” I said. “I don’t think I can make it till 8” he said. “You have to.” I said, “ You don’t want to miss the game.” If I’m still a live tonight wake me up” he said. Then he said to me in a more somber tone, “What’s going to happen to me?” “Well, Dad, the way it’s going I think you’re gonna die.” “What can we do about it?” he asked. “We can take you back to the hospital and get an IV and try something else” I said. Without a pause he said, “I’m not goin’ back to that place, no way. I love my beautiful home.” “Well then, Dad, I guess we’ll stick it out here.” I said “And then I added, “When you get to heaven, put in a good word for me, will ya?” He thought it over smiled and said, “That won’t be easy.” “Why not?” I asked. “I know ya.” Some things you just can’t make up.
I have often thought to myself that were I dying slowly, I’d like for someone to read the Psalms to me. I guessed that maybe he would like that to. One afternoon I said to him, “Dad would you like me to read to you from the Bible?” He said, “Yes, “I’d like that very much.” So I began to read to him from the Psalms. I read the 23rd Psalm with those beautiful words “Ye though I walk thru the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me”. After that, he asked for a sip of water, sips were all he could take. Then he said, “Read that one again, I liked that.” So I read it again and kept reading Psalms to him for about thirty minutes when he said, “That’s enough; I’m tired. But thank you. I’ll remember that forever.”
Again later in the week, about two days before he died, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer. I had been praying with him each night, for those two weeks often with his caregiver, holding hands. That night he prayed along with me and afterwards he held my hand a long time and then in a hoarse whisper said, “Thanks be to God!” Those were his last words. After that he became too weak to speak; morphine kept him under. He was gone about 48 hours later.
It was a privilege to be with my father for the last two weeks of his life; a privilege that you, in part, made possible. I could not have done this without your support. You not only allowed me the time, but you gave me a lot of strength. There is a natural tendency in us to run away from death, to avoid those who are dying, to not even think about the final end. Death is frightening and the death of a parent is in some ways the worst of all. During those fateful two weeks I was constantly out of breath, like a passenger on a sinking ship might feel, every moment was an emergency and I felt like I was sinking under the weight of knowing that nothing I was doing would change the final outcome. I felt exhausted, without relief, too tired to sleep. I cried at times uncontrollably. It was hard. But I knew that I had a job to do. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said. That means, “Don’t think about yourself but, like Simon of Cyrene who was pressed into service to carry Christ’s cross, be strong for him who needs you.” I remembered what I learned from you and I did what so many of you have done. That’s a beautiful thing about the church; we learn from each other how to be faithful and how to be strong. So you were with me all the while and I thank you for that. I thank my wife for abandoning her office to be by my side, it helps when you’re in the lion’s den to have your loved ones near, to know that someone’s a witness to your sorrow; that others are praying for you; just knowing that someone cares is an enormous source of strength. But to have the church with you is the greatest strength of all.
So that is the story of how I came to enter a very elite club, the club of those who no longer have mom or dad with them. We are orphans now. But we are not alone. Our faith informs us that our true parents rule a kingdom not of this world; and that we have an inheritance in that kingdom that exceeds all worldly expectations. Therefore, in the end, we see thru our tears and we know that there is only one fitting way for men and women of faith to conduct themselves and that is to go on: to go on honoring our parents in the only way that counts, by loving one another as Christ loves us. And we do so with confidence that those who love God will not only be reunited again on the last day when our Judge appears but that we are already, here and now, in life and death bound as one eternally in His love. And that is our great consolation: that love never ends but is continually renewed in Him who loves us all.
The Revered Jansen String
St. George’s and St. Matthew’s, Dundalk, MD
November 13, 2016