(Friends: Today, I’m adding some original FB posts to my blog…posts I’ve made about my Dad in recent months…so that they are captured for posterity here…apologies for all these coming through your feed today….but thanks for understanding the need to keep the history…EF)
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about breath. Those of you who know what’s been going on with my Dad will know why. For those of you who haven’t heard, my Father has pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable disease that slowly robs you of the ability to breathe. I posted here on FB about it a few weeks ago, and I promised to follow-up with additional posts when I needed to. So, this is the next one.
This post is being sent to a larger audience than the last. But it’s still blocked from Dad and some other family. So, as before, I’ll ask you to kindly not mention this post to him. And to continue to treat him and Mom as normally as you can.
But, the news of his condition is no longer secret, and we’ve been sharing it with just about everybody for the past several weeks. And there is big news today…
Within the next few days, Dad will go on hospice care, at home. It’s been a dramatic downward staircase for him the past few weeks. Now, this big step. Hard to know how long hospice may last. Could be as long as six months, but that seems unlikely. Might be a far shorter window than that.
As I said in the last post, when these kinds of illnesses and death happen in a family, they’re especially challenging to a select set of people. If, as a family member, you also have a career in medicine…if you’re a counselor or social worker…and….if you’re a member of the clergy…there’s an added layer of forehand knowledge that you bring to these moments when they happen to somebody you love.
You tend to know, in a clinical, psychological, or spiritual way what’s coming next. But, as I’ve told the docs, nurses, and clergy I’ve been privileged to minister to for years, you can never know the one thing: what it’s like to actually *be* the son or daughter, the husband or wife. That’s a different thing. So now, I’m living that advice.
I mean, I’ve seen somebody die of pulmonary fibrosis. I’ve literally had the honor to be in the room when it happened. No doubt, though, it will be far different when it comes this time. And so, I’m listening to my own soul/body, and the whispers of God, as we move through this time.
“One day at a time,” I counsel people who come to me at times like this…
“Don’t think ahead,” I sagely tell them…
“Just do what needs to be done that day,” says Minister-Me.
And then, I often add, “And it’s a lot easier for me to give this advice than it is for you to do it…”
So now comes a time, when it’s neither easy to say or do.
Dad’s being very brave in all this. Those of you who know him well will know his biggest worry so far is how it affects everybody else. He *hates* being the center of attention, and he’s now at a moment in life where he can’t help but be.
But as I’ve said at the top, I’ve been thinking about breath. I’ve been meditating on it for months now. And about this horrible disease which, bit by bit, robs you of it. Here and there on bike rides, I will burst into tears, thinking about my Dad….knowing what’s coming. I’ll think about how a bike ride is all about breathing. It’s about managing breath….being aware of it.
What you may not know is that Dad used to ride his road bike around White Rock.
For all you who enjoy my ride-posts these days, the secret truth is that Dad’s always been my bike-inspiration. We only ever rode together a few times. Back when we did, he was probably the age I am today. It was when I was in seminary.
I was young, but fat and breathless.
He was lean, barely broke a sweat, rarely ever even huffed.
Thirty-years my senior, he totally…kicked…my…ass.
But a few years (and crashes) later he was relegated to a recumbent bike. He gave up rides altogether, once some heart issues flared up.
Last winter, maybe fifteen years after his final rides, I posted a GoPro video of a White Rock ride. A year-and-a-half into managing this disease that leaves you breathless, Dad was completely giddy with the memory. He asked me about various spots on the trail…improvements. He imparted his own wisdom about his favorite spots.
And after a long time of blissful memories, he paused for a long time and said,
“I sure wish I could be out there with you…”
I do too, Dad. I do too.
So, when I’m headed around the lake? On all those rides you see me taking? One of the things I’m always doing, but never mention to you all, is thinking about Dad. I’m riding FOR him.
I’m *breathing* for him. And I’ll do it as long as I’m able.
These days, headed up the biggest hills, panting fast in double time, I think of how Dad gets that way just walking from one room to another. It makes me cry. But it makes me more committed to ride than ever. To keep going. Because if he could, he would.
Thinking about breath also led me back to the very first story in the Bible. (actually the second). The creation story itself, in Genesis, when the writer tells how God created the first human being
:“…the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.”
Such an earthy description. Such a quaint one. I mean, we know about biology now, right? We know about science and medicine. We know that the life-forces are far more complex than this.
But put yourself back thousands of years ago, in the minds of those early Hebrew people. They watched, as their loved ones drew their last breath. And then, once the breath was gone? The bodies of their loved ones turned back to dust.
They realized, observationally, that the only difference between us and the dirt is breath. The breath that moves in and out of us. When we come out of our mother’s wombs, we come out breathless. There is a moment of pause….of breathlessness in the room. And then, covered in blood, red and ruddy, we CRY….we breath out and in.
Those ancient Hebrews saw that too. We now can scan the brain and know about “brain wave” activity. But from what they could see, from birth to death, it was breath that meant whether or not we were alive.
And even with all our scientific knowledge and training, even as we know that life is a far more complex biological process, it’s a lovely, poetic description of life, isn’t it?
God uses God’s hands. (Yes. God seems to have hands in this story. Go with it. Don’t be so literal…)
God molds dirt into the form of a human being.
God breathes life’s breath into the human’s nostrils.
And just like Frosty the Snowman, that human being comes to life.
Is it a scientifically cogent way of describing what happens?
Of course not. And it was never meant to be.
It’s the language of poetry and lyricism. It’s the language of mystery and metaphor.
God’s breath moves in and out of each of us. And one day, we’ll breathe our last, and return to the dust once again.
So, I was already praying/meditating on all of this today, in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, while Mom and Dad were in the exam room. When another bit of scripture also popped out at me. From Romans:
“The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters.”
It’s good for me, and for us all, to remember that there is such a thing as a good breathless too. Life takes our breath away sometimes, yes?
The beauty of a lake at sunset.
The smile of a friend.
Good medical tests.
Some song you hear played by a writer for the first time.
The first breath of a baby.
The last breath of a loved one.
As is attributed to George Carlin, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”
As with my last post on Dad’s illness, I’ll close with a song here too. You’ll find it in the first link. Unlike last time, when I just posted the link to the Townes Van Zandt song, “Lungs,” I’ll say a word about this one…
I was first introduced to Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe” by our friend, Mary Brown. She asked me to play and sing it at her father’s memorial service. Tim McLemore and me performed it together. Joe Brown was such a wonderful man and, like my Dad, and he also was pretty sick near the end. Mary said the song had meant a lot to them, and that they would just sit and “breathe.”
“One day at a time.”
“Don’t forget to breathe.”
And so, for as long as Dad has breath, for as long as I do, may we cope with breathless times, and pause to notice the ones that take our breath away. And may we accept the dust that we are now, and the dust we will again be, when the breath of life finally leaves us.
And may we give thanks to the One who gives us to all…life, and breath, and being.