Tuesday, March 6, 2007. 2 a.m.
The big hospital clock in room 4326 of Greenville Memorial Hospital said, with both hands straight up, midnight. Daddy had just taken his last breath. My watch said 12:01, March 6, 2007.
I had slept a little since the last morphine shot at 10. One ear sleeping, one on the breathing. At 11:45 I awoke. The breath’s were coming more frequently and were very shallow. I will not sleep again, I thought. For ten minutes I prayed aloud into his left ear with Bible texts and pleadings to Jesus to come and take him. I had made this case before, and this time felt an unusual sense of partnership with Daddy as I pressed on the Lord to relieve this warrior of his burden.
I finished and lay down. Good. Thank you Lord. It will not be long. And grace upon grace, hundreds of prayers are being answered: he is not choking. The gurgling that threatened to spill over and drown him in the afternoon had sunk deep and now there was simple clear air, shorter and shorter. I listened from where I lay next to him on a fold-out chair.
That’s it. I rose and waited. Will he breath again? Nothing. 15 or 20 seconds, and then a gasp. I was told to expect these false endings. But it was not false. The gasp was the first of two. But no more breaths. I waited, watching. No facial expressions. His face had frozen in place hours before. One more jerk. That was all. Perhaps an eyebrow twitch a moment later. Nothing more.
I stroked his forehead and sang,
My gracious Master and My God
Assist me to proclaim
To spread through all the earth abroad
The honors of thy name.
Daddy, how many thousands awaited you because of your proclamation of the great gospel. You were faithful. You kept the faith, finished the race, fought the fight. “Make friends for yourselves with unrighteous mammon that they might receive you into eternal habitations.”
I watched, wondering if there could be other reflexes. I combed his hair. He always wore a tie. The indignities of death are many but we tried to minimize them. Keep the covers straight. Pull the gown up around his neck so it looks like a sharp turtleneck. Tuck the gappy shoulder slits down behind so they don’t show. Use a wet washcloth to keep the secretions from crusting in the eyelashes. And by all means keep his hair combed. So now I straightened his bedding and combed his hair and wiped his eyes and put the mouth moisturizer on his lips and tried to close his mouth. His mouth would not stay closed. It had been set in that position from hours and hours of strained breathing. But he was neat. A strong, dignified face.
I called Beverly first, then Noël. Tearfully we gave thanks. Get a good night’s rest. I will take care of things here with the doctor and the nurses and the mortuary arrangements. I will gather all our things and take them back to the motel. “I wish I had been there,” Beverly lamented. Yes. That is good. But don’t let that feeling dominate now. In the days to come you will look back with enormous gratitude for the hundreds of hours you gave serving daddy. It is my turn to be blessed.
The nurse came to give him his scheduled morphine shot. As she walked toward me I said, “He won’t need that any more.” “Is he gone?” “Yes. And thank you so much for your ministry to him.” “I will notify the doctor so he can come and verify. I will leave you alone.” “Yes, thank you.”
The doctor in his green frock came at 12:40 and listened with his stethoscope to four different places on daddy’s chest. Then he pulled back the sheet and said, “I must apply some pain stimuli to his nail base to see if he reacts. Then he used his flash light to text daddy’s eyes. “The nurse supervisor will come and get the information we need about the mortuary.” Thank you.
Alone again I felt his cheeks. Finally cool after the fevered and flushed fight. I felt his nose, as though I were blind. Then I felt mine. I thought, very soon my nose will be like your nose. It is already like your nose.
The nurse came. No thank you, an autopsy will not be necessary. Mackay Mortuary on Century Avenue. My name is John, his son. My cell phone is . . . . “You may stay as long as you like.” Thank you. I will be leaving soon.
Now I just look at him. Nothing has changed in his face here in the darkness of this dim light. Just no movement. But I have watched his chest so long, even now was that a slight rise and fall? No, surely not. It’s like sailing on the sea for days. On the land the waves still roll.
He has four-day’s beard and dark eyes. I lift an eyelid to see him eye to eye. They are dilated.
Thank you, Daddy. Thank you for 61 years of faithfulness to me. I am simply looking into his face now. Thank you. You were a good Father. You never put me down. Discipline, yes. Spankings, yes. But you never scorned me. You never treated me with contempt. You never spoke of my future with hopelessness in your voice. You believed God’s hand was on me. You approved of my ministry. You prayed for me. Every day. That may be the biggest change in these new days: Daddy is no longer praying for me.
I look you in the face and promise you with all my heart: Never will I forsake your gospel. O how you believed in hell and heaven and Christ and cross and blood and righteousness and faith and salvation and the Holy Spirit and the life of holiness and love. I rededicate myself, Daddy, to serve your great and glorious Lord Jesus with all my heart and with all my strength. You have not lived in vain. Your life goes on in thousands. I am glad to be one.
I kissed him on his cold cheek and on his forehead. I love you, Daddy. Thank you.
It was 12:55 as I walked out of room 4326. Just before the elevators on the fourth floor in the lounge a young man in his twenties was sitting alone listening to his iPod with headphones. I paused. Then I walked toward him. He stopped his music. Hello, my Father just died. One of the greatest tributes I could pay to him is to ask you, Are you ready to meet God? “Yes, Sir.” That would make my father very happy. You know Jesus is the only way? “Yes, Sir.” Good. Thank you for letting me talk to you.
As I drove out of the parking lot I stopped. The moon was a day past full. It was cold—for Greenville. I looked at this great hospital. Thank you, Lord, for this hospital. I will probably never lay eyes on it again.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Piper family. We trust that God will continue to reveal to them His sweet nearness and sustaining comfort.