My dad’s father died suddenly when Dad was only nine years old. Death came on a Sunday morning, which just happened to be Dad’s grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary. Dad was in church reading a tribute to them, soon to find out that his father hadn’t shown up in church because he had passed away at home. Dad knew death well by then. Only a year before, his younger sister had also died suddenly. This left my father an only child.
Hard times were common for my dad and his mother. They had a roof over their heads and help from extended family, but not much else. Grandma went to work as a matron—similar to today’s nursing assistants—at a special school for children with polio. She was small in stature, but strong both in body and spirit. Grandma worked long hours lifting crippled children in and out of whirlpool baths and caring for the ones trapped inside the massive iron lung machines that kept them alive. Dad worked at the school, too, sweeping floors, cleaning bathrooms, and doing dishes. Together, mother and son earned enough to pay their bills, but not much else.
Dad carried his childhood burdens into adulthood. He wouldn’t admit it, but he was terrified of death. He became so overprotective of his family that it often pushed them away. Demons from his youth stirred deep within him, those images of his father, sister, and children sick with polio. He didn’t understand why he needed always to control and protect, but it was clear to those around him: death and hardship had made Dad afraid.
He had a favorite phrase. He said it often whenever he saw someone struggling with health issues or an old person nearing the end of their life: “There but for the grace of God go I.”
My father lived to be almost ninety. For the last decade of his life he existed in the fog of Alzheimer’s disease unable to recognize familiar faces or remember anything at all. Still, in the weeks before his death he would sometimes grasp a visitor’s hand and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Dad died five years ago on April 4, 2008. I miss him, but I find comfort knowing that even in the murky darkness of his broken mind grace was with him. In 2 Corinthians 12:9, the Lord says, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Throughout his life, God’s grace was sufficient for my father, and when death finally came, it was grace that led him home.
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