It was late in the afternoon, and I was on a flight from Minneapolis to Dallas. Kathy called to say our brother wasn’t doing well, and I should come as soon as possible. Johnny had undergone surgery to address internal bleeding, and while successful, the damage was worse than anticipated. He was also in the midst of fighting a second round of cancer, and multiple rounds of chemotherapy had taken its toll. He was tired, and coming through such an aggressive surgery would make his recovery even more difficult.
Johnny’s oldest son, Joshua, had just flown in from California. We met when I picked up the rental car, and we headed toward the hospital. This wouldn’t be the first time the two of us would spend time with his Dad in ICU, but it would be our last.
When we arrived, Kathy’s facial expression told me things were grim. Troy, Johnny’s youngest son, immediately took Josh to see their Dad. Johnny had been unresponsive for some time, so neither Josh or I would get a chance to speak with him. Upon their return, Kathy and I went together. As I saw him through the sliding glass door, I wished I could have gotten there sooner. With tears in my eyes, I kissed his forehead and told him I was there.
After spending much of the night in the waiting room, Kathy and I drove to a hotel. After sleeping a few hours, we returned to be by his side. Although he had made it through the night, there was no change, and it appeared there wasn’t going to be. Later that morning, the hospital staff asked to speak with the family.
We were directed to a small conference room where a spokeswoman for the hospital began to speak. She was kind and empathetic as she updated us on Johnny’s condition. We were told that Johnny was as sick as anyone could possibly be, and still be alive. If by some miracle he were to pull through, the road to recovery would be a long and painful one. And there was still the cancer. His blood pressure medication was the only thing keeping him alive, and it was at its maximum dosage. Nothing more could be done, and with little hope of recovery, a decision needed to be made. While she emphasized there was no rush in making the decision, what she had just shared told us otherwise.
Everyone had the opportunity to speak from their heart, but ultimately the decision would rest with his boys. A decision no son should have to make. When Troy shared that Johnny made it clear he didn’t want to be kept alive by artificial means, it made the decision while not easy, obvious.
It was time to let him go.
We waited as they prepared his room. Many of the medical devices surrounding him were removed, allowing family to be at his side. One by one we began telling him how much he was loved, and that he would be greatly missed. I walked around the bed, kissed him on the forehead, and told him I loved him.
Soon, they would stop administering the medication elevating his blood pressure. As a result, his heart would begin to slow down, eventually stopping. He would experience no pain, and his passing would be peaceful.
But we weren’t prepared for just how quickly that would happen.
As the nurse left the room, I began watching the screen monitoring his heart rate. Every few seconds, it slowed. 104…100…96…92… It was dropping too fast, and we weren’t ready to let him go! When the number reached 50, I bowed my head to pray. Almost immediately, I heard a collective gasp. As I looked up, the monitor was flashing zero.
He was gone.
The finality of that moment was devastating. Looks of shock and disbelief filled the room. We cried, hugged one another in support, and said our last goodbyes. As others began to leave, Kathy and I remained. As difficult as it was for all of us, I believe it was even more so for her. The two of them had a special bond. No matter how difficult the circumstances, they were always there for one another.
Walking away somehow leaves you with a feeling of betrayal and guilt, as if you should do something to fix it, to make it better. But you can’t, and it reminds you of the finality of death. At least on this side of eternity.
In a few days I would preside over Johnny’s service, just as I had my Mother and Father before him. As I sat in my hotel room preparing the message, I was reminded of the wisdom of King Solomon when he said, “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart.” (Ecclesiates 7:2-3)
We should remember death?
Yes, in part because nothing rearranges our priorities faster. It also causes us to see life through a different lens, and allows us to see clearly what truly matters most.
People are what matter most, and death has a way of putting that into perspective.
But what happens when the time of mourning has passed and we’ve moved beyond our grief? For many of us, the clarity we received in that awful moment begins to fade.
So we would do well to take Solomon’s advice, remembering the house of mourning. Reminded daily of the infinite worth of people. People who’s souls are eternal, and worth more than our strong opinions, political affiliations, or FaceBook memes. People… those whom God has created in His own image who need to know Jesus, be born again, and filled with the Spirit of God. Because when death comes, we will all stand before Him, and on that day being in relationship with Jesus is really all that matters.
Many see death as “the end” of life, believing that when you die, you cease to exist. It certainly feels that way. But to understand death, you must first understand “life”.
When God created you, it was for eternity. You have no “shelf life”, or “expiration date”. You will live forever, and what you do with Jesus will determine where you will live it.
“Death” in scripture means separation. When you die, your soul separates from your body. This is the first death, after which you will be judged. The “second death” is separation from God for eternity. Cast into outer darkness; away from God forever. An eternity of pain and suffering, to which there is no end.
There is a popular belief that we are “all God’s children”. Actually, that’s not true. While we are all God’s creation, we are not all God’s children, and only God’s children will escape the second death.
“But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” John 1:12-13
God has given us a choice. Life (eternity with God), or death (eternity separated from God). And that decision must be made in this life.
The question isn’t whether you will live for eternity, the question is where.
No one is promised tomorrow. We don’t know the day, nor the hour that our time will come. But when it does, you need to be ready. And death can come quickly.
From fifty to zero in a heartbeat.