When Grief Comes
** I wrote this on December 26, 2018, because I wanted to remember. Today, as a tribute to honor Larry Sutton—my Dad—who himself felt it was very important to remember people and events, I invite you to share in our 2018 Christmas. We knew the time was short as Dad’s 15-year battle with prostate cancer was drawing to a close.**
It was the strangest Christmas, the Christmas of 2018. We had moved to Houston in May, so we weren’t hosting our usual Christmas Day brunch. Drew and Faith had spent the night with Chris’s mother, so Chris and I woke up by ourselves in a hotel room.
Then Mom called. I knew what that ringing phone meant. I knew it meant Dad wasn’t able to go to the Christmas lunch being hosted by my friend Lisa. I’d known on Christmas Eve when we left their house—just a quick stop by after we got in town—I knew he’d never be able to go to Lisa’s.
The lunch at Lisa’s was pleasant, but my mind was distant. I felt like I was in a glass box. People could see me, and I could see them. But I seemed unable to connect. I tried. But the heavy drape of emotion hanging over me seemed to make connection impossible.
I felt like I was waiting for something, and whatever it was seemed to be taking forever. It was like being at the airport waiting on your flight; the gate agent makes the announcement that your flight is delayed because of weather at your destination, and now you’re stuck waiting on the storm to pass. There’s no telling how long you’re going to have to wait. So you pace at the gate. You go get coffee. You start texting someone, ruminating about how your flight is delayed and you just wish you could get on with it. You sit in the floor of the airport and watch other travelers pass. The folks at the gate across the concourse are allowed to board their plane and take off, but you just sit and sit and sit. And no one knows how long you’re going to be like this.
As the afternoon grew late we left Lisa’s, and just as we had been doing for the last several years we went back to Mom and Dad’s for a quiet Christmas evening meal. Mom had the usual deli turkey and ham hoagies. Swiss and provolone cheeses, too. Black olives, taco chips. Tea and water to drink. A Hershey Bar pie for dessert.
Dad and I had made a trip into his office before dinner because he wanted to be sure I knew where the key to the lock box was. We talked bank business, retirement fund, looked into his legal-sized hanging files to see where everything was. We looked at the card which had his budget printed out—with the “payments made” highlighted in orange. He told me I was going to need to help Mom. He knew I would; nonetheless I assured him he could count on me, reminding him that if I had been able to take over my grandparents’ business and get it all straightened out (what a mess that had been), then I would surely be able to help Mom with her money matters.
We reminisced a bit, talking about Grandma’s financial business and how Grandma’s former daughter-in-law Shirley had wanted to know if I was going to take an Executor’s fee. I told my Dad I couldn’t believe she’d acted like that, and that I’d told her I wasn’t interested in any Executor’s fee.
“It was never about the money for me,” I told Dad.
“And I’m proud of you for that,” he said back.
Faith came and joined us, and he talked to her about how she was growing up and someday she’d be getting married. She laughed and told him she’d be sure to invite him, and he told her she’d need to be sending the invitation to Heaven. We laughed, but the atmosphere was still somber. The seriousness, the reality of his situation—it just hung in the air like an unwanted companion. Uninvited. Unwelcomed.
We ate dinner around their kitchen table just like always. Dad sat at the head and Mom was to his left; Faith was to her left, and Chris sat across from both of them. I sat at the opposite end of the table from Dad. Drew was with some friends, so he wasn’t there; I feel mixed about his absence. I’m glad he could enjoy some time with friends, but I was also sorry he wasn’t there. By not being there, I guess he was spared; he didn’t have to feel it, the presence of the uninvited guest at this, our last Christmas with my Dad.
We ate, and we talked about nothing in particular. Mom remarked that she enjoyed the sweet potatoes I had brought to them from Lisa’s. Dad talked about how his teeth had been giving him trouble. The unspoken words were that he’d never do anything to fix the dental problem. Not now. Too late for that now.
Faith finished her sandwich and got up from the table. Mom, Dad, Chris and I continued to talk about nothing in particular, but every few words something would be said to indicate how short the time was. I sat struggling; I wanted so badly to hold it together because we knew this was our last Christmas dinner with him. My Mom had cried so much—didn’t want to do anything to make her more sad than she already was. Emotions and weird thoughts were swirling in my mind, and I knew I couldn’t leave everything unsaid. I could feel the unrelenting sting of tears—they just demanded to have their moment, nothing I could do to stop it.
Finally, I resolved that I was going to have to let some of it out. I looked at Dad and said, “You know….” Hesitation as I gathered myself. “You’re going to see so many people….”
Dad looked at me, puzzled at first.
“You’re going to get to see so…many…people….”
“Oh, you mean….”
“It’s going to be amazing.” One tear. Then another.
He smiled slightly.
“And I’m going to ask Saint Peter about the zebra,” here he broke into a full grin. “Is it white with black stripes or black with white stripes?”
The burst of laughter gave an open vent to our pent-up emotions. Healthy stuff, laughter. But the tears came too.
“When you get there….” I stalled again, grieved at the reality. “Tell Grandma and Grandpa that I love them, and I miss them.”
“I will,” he responded as our eyes met, and simultaneously we each pursed our lips and gave a short nod, sort of like we’d just successfully concluded a business deal.
Chris and Dad picked at each other the way they always do, and we were able to laugh a little more. My mother said they were being silly—as she smiled and wiped away tears at the same time. I told her, “No, Chris is trying to get a ‘phooey’ out of him!” We all burst out laughing at that, soaking in the fun of Dad’s competitive spirit—experienced by each of us as we had played cards around that very table on so many previous Christmas nights. Dad, not willing to disappoint, waited for Chris to say something else silly at which point he gave us a good effort “Phooey!”
He sat at the table as long as he could; but his pain forced him from the chair back into the living room where he sat leaned over the arm rest of his recliner. We knew he was exhausted, so we hugged, affirmed that we loved each other, then took our leave. And afterwards, we each pondered how Christmas was about to change.
I Thessalonians 4:13-14
“…we do not want you to be uniformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in Him.”
The time was indeed short, much shorter than the doctor had suggested. On January 24, 2019, at 2:45 in the afternoon, Dad was gone.
We weep; we miss his wisdom. But we have peace and consolation; because of Jesus, and the extraordinary work He did on the cross, the relationship is not over. We will see Dad again; and with him, we’ll see Jesus.
It comes to this:
- The whole race fell into sin through Adam and Eve (Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”)
- Left to ourselves, we are powerless to fix it (Isaiah 64:6, “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags.”)
- So Jesus, born in Bethlehem perfect and sinless, stepped in to take our place, paying the price for our sin (Isaiah 53:5, 6, “But He was pierced for our transgressions…and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”)
- Jesus, by His death and resurrection, has made a perfectly legal way for us to be right with His Father—our Creator (Romans 10:9, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”)
In 1978, my Dad made the decision to follow Jesus, and he never looked back. When the time came for him to leave this earth, he was looking forward—to seeing Jesus, and to one day having us join him. For now, we have a temporary separation because of his death; but because of Jesus, we have the hope of reunion. So when grief comes, I remember, “Death has been swallowed up in victory,” (I Corinthians 15:54). My Dad would want you to know: there is hope in Jesus!