He sat there on a bed in the ICU. He was propped slightly; his head drooped, his eyes closed. He had been breathing with a ventilator for twenty-four hours. I patted his hand, then quickly slipped around to the end of the bed, not wanting him to sense the depth of my despair.
“I love you, Daddy,” I said, not sure he even heard me. His head snapped up and his eyes opened. Our eyes met and locked. “I love you, too,” he said in a raspy but firm voice. Then his head dropped to his chest again. It caught me off guard. Those were the first words he had spoken since I arrived more than two hours earlier. The weight of my decision just grew heavier.
At that moment the attending doctor stepped up, encouraging me to sign the papers. I nodded impatiently, trying to impart the fact that I would not be pressured into a hasty decision. I turned and hurried out the door. Down the elevator, I walked past crowds of people moving in and out of the hospital. I felt isolated. I rushed across the street to my car, slipped inside, then broke down and wept.
Less than twenty-four hours earlier, at work, I had received a call from my brother informing me that Dad had been taken to the hospital. Nearly dying at the home, he had survived only through the ventilator. My brother told me the doctor was strongly recommending we sign a document requesting that in the future, no extraordinary mechanical means would be used to revive our dad. This was not the first time Dad had been in need of such measures. Each episode had been traumatic and physically difficult for him.
A severe head injury from an auto accident fourteen years earlier had resulted in seizures that, when they came, left Dad totally unaware of the present. Although he had given up smoking twenty-five years earlier, the effects of a pack a day for over forty years could not be reversed. Mild emphysema hampered his lungs’ ability to convert the healing oxygen his body needed. Congestive heart failure and dehydration plagued him; rheumatoid arthritis had crippled his hands. The doctor’s advice was pragmatic, but I couldn’t be sure of the motives. Did he believe my dad was just another old man who had outlived his usefulness? It was my father’s life we were dealing with.
I had quickly set aside my family and business affairs and drove three-hundred miles to be at his side. Though I knew my dad’s eternal life was secure, I could not even consider a decision as significant as this from long distance. Crossroads We stood at a crossroads. Dad and I had discussed this idea in the past but didn’t cover specifics. No scripture answered this question. My mind was fogged in, locked on the emotions of losing my dad. What was fair about this? I felt as though I were being asked to sign an execution order. My wife keeps a statement centrally located on our refrigerator door: “The present circumstance is an instrument in the hands of a loving God, to shape us for eternity; do not reject the instrument lest you lose its work.” Sometimes, though, when pounded by an unexpected and violent storm, we focus on the storm’s effects, losing sight of its Master.
I was physically alone at the hospital. My brothers lived in other states. I yearned for my wife to whom I could pour my heart out. God, however, was pointing me to Himself. As my soul quieted, the Holy Spirit whispered, “My grace is sufficient for you . . .” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NIV). The storm began to relent. A faint light on the distant shore of faith began to flicker anew.
I knew deep within that God was sovereign over the end of life, just as He had been at its conception. I knew that I should simply place my dad in His hands. My dad would exit this physical life at the precise moment God ordained it to happen — no sooner and no later. God had taught me through wonderful lessons that He is almighty, but my emotions clouded my foundational grasp of His nature. Is there a point at which one draws the line regarding man’s efforts to sustain a person’s life? When is enough enough? Is it ever right for me to say my dad’s physical condition has degraded so much that no extraordinary mechanical means should be employed to keep him alive?
I spoke at length by phone with my wife and felt a strengthening that would carry me to the next step. I called my brothers and shared with them my view of Dad’s condition. Each offered comfort and expressed their support for me. These lengthy discussions proved cathartic to me. I sat down and reread the forms. Amid a raging torrent of doubt and anxiety, I signed them. By this action, in my heart, I had placed my dad’s life completely in the hands of the eternal God. Peace immediately flooded me — pure, all-encompassing, transcending all understanding (Philippians 4:7). I was consumed with the deep love of my heavenly Father, and I knew I was in the presence of His Son.
They moved Dad into a regular room, and I sat with him for hours. Although the specter of death lingered, my dad did not pass on. He was taken back to the nursing home. Over the next eight weeks Dad weakened and seemed to be near death several times. No ventilator was used — only the special care and necessary medications to give him aid and comfort. In each case he regained his strength and continued his journey. God is sovereign and compassionate. He knows us and teaches us as only our Creator could. God used those weeks to let me see how He alone sustains life. My father’s life was not in my hands. He would exit this physical life at the precise moment God ordained it — no sooner and no later.
Late one evening I received the call: My dad had passed away while he slept. This, of course, did not surprise God. He knew that the document prohibiting ventilators would not be a factor. The issue of the medical release was an exercise of faith on my part. Though I deeply mourned the separation from the dad I dearly loved, I rejoiced that his physical struggle was ended and he was reunited with my mother, his wife of over fifty years. And I carried forward a new understanding from the One who had taught me gently and displayed His sovereignty.