14 May 2014

Til Death Do We Part



This post is intensely personal.  It is about a lot of stuff swirling in my mind about life's streaming twists and turns, appearing simply to follow the lay of the land, yet relentlessly pursuing a definite destination.  This is the story of my parents, where they came from and what they did with their lives and then what life did with them.  This story is about me inasmuch as I am a combination of the product of their choices as well as my own. This is a story about coming to grips with great disappointment and grief. What follows is an attempt to snatch a few details and coherent thoughts from my mind and arrange them in some way that makes sense to me, tells just some of their story, and reflects on the end of their journey together and places it within the larger view of faith.   


Dad was born in 1942 in his family home in the heart of Appalachia.  Mom was born in the county next door in 1943.  Both grew up eastern-Kentucky poor, Mom more so than Dad.  But both were raised in homes where mom and dad stayed together even through the most difficult times.  Mom was the middle child of five girls.  A sixth sister died as a toddler from pneumonia.  Mom's childhood home-place was literally up the creek.  There was no road to her house that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing.  She and her family had to walk down the creek to the main road.  Of course, subsistence farming and hunting put a lot of the food on the table.

Dad was the oldest of three. He had a younger brother and the baby was a sister, who as a young adult died from a brain tumor in 1976.  Dad grew up in the small community of Dwarf, just over the mountain from Hazard.  In its good days Dwarf had its own bus station, three general stores, and two gas stations at the intersection of two well travelled roads.  But that was before the new highway rerouted all its through traffic in 1981.  With a sense of humor, however, you can view a sign that claims Dwarf to be "the center of the universe."  This is where my dad grew up.  More specifically, he grew up about a mile and a half away in the head of a hollow named Comb's Branch. 

Mom's first adventure away from the mountains came when she was about 12 years old.  For reasons unclear to me even now she went to live with relatives somewhere in Ohio for two years.  I never heard her talk about it.  In high school, she was a boarding student at Cordia in the late 1950's, graduating in 1960 at age seventeen.  Dad had already graduated two years before Mom in Perry County at M.C. Napier, barely sixteen years old.  He spent a short time at Caney Junior College ('58-'59) then continued school in the Spring of 1960 at Lee's Junior College in Jackson. He left home to work at McCall's Publishing in Dayton, Ohio during the Fall of 1960, then found himself back home in the Winter of 1960-61 taking care of family while his dad was recuperating from a broken arm.  Mom attended Caney College in the Fall of 1960 for a year and then moved with one of her sisters to Lexington for a year and attended the Appalachian School of Nursing, where she earned her LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse).      

In 1961 Dad made the bold move to join the Air Force. After his initial training he found himself stationed at Dover AFB, Delaware -  a far piece from Comb's Branch.  While on leave in the fall of 1962 he first became introduced to my Mom at his best friend's wedding.  His friend was marrying one of Mom's sisters.  He immediately felt an attraction and interest, but he had to return to duty at Dover.  However, he remained preoccupied with her, so he wrote a letter asking if she would go on a date with him.  She wrote back accepting his invitation.  This exchange began a two-year courtship that was primarily through letter writing.

In the spring of 1963 Dad took leave and had his first date with Mom in Harlan, Ky.  The reason for the date taking place in Harlan was because she was now working her first job there as a newly licensed nurse.  From this point on Dad took his leaves to go see Mom when he could and Mom took her first plane ride to see Dad once in Dover.  In December 1963 he proposed marriage to her in a letter and she accepted - through a letter.

In the meantime Mom had began working as a nurse in Hazard.  She rented an apartment on Lyttle Blvd. in Hazard, just a stone's throw from where I live now with my wife and kids in the "backwoods."  On December 25, 1964 they were married at the old Dwarf Baptist Church, which stood at the mouth of Comb's branch where the dirt road met the pavement.

The newlyweds made their first home in Dover, Delaware, where he was still stationed.  They lived there until November 1966 when dad was sent overseas.  Mom moved back to eastern Kentucky and stayed with family while Dad headed to the Philippines.  She was seven months pregnant with me at the time.

Two months later I was born in Hazard in January 1967 while Dad was in Saigon, Vietnam at Ton Son Nhut AFB.  He hadn't told Mom or any family that he was in Vietnam, so it took the Red Cross three days to track his whereabouts to give him the news that he had a new son.  In September Dad was granted an emergency change of station.  It had nothing to do with me, but with the fact that his father had become seriously ill.  I was eight months old when Dad returned to the states and held me for the first time.  I hear that I didn't take to him all too quickly.

Dad's career in the Air Force took the three of us to McGuire AFB, New Jersey and then to Langley AFB, Virginia.  In early 1969 Dad was sent on temporary deployment to Mildenhall AFB, England and again Mom headed back to eastern Kentucky with me to stay with family.  By now two factors had convinced Dad to make his exit from military life: separation from family and the G.I. Bill.  In March 1969 he was discharged after eight years of honorable service.

In 1970 Dad took another decisive step with his life and one that would drastically affect me - he moved us to Lexington, a two-hour drive west from home and enrolled in the University of Kentucky.  That same year my sister was born and Dad and Mom bought their first house, a new 1,000 square-foot, three bed room, one bath ranch which would be my home until I left for college.  We did add about 400 hundred more square feet with a family room and half bath later.

Dad worked odd jobs and Mom worked full time as a nurse until he graduated in 1973 with a B.A. in education.  After that, he taught science in the Fayette County school system for 25 years.  During that time he also completed a Master's Degree and a Rank 1 in education.  Mom went on to become an RN in her 40s and started her work with Hospice in 1985, the same year I graduated from high school. 

During our childhood we visited the mountains regularly on holidays and in the summer.  Dad didn't let us lose touch with our roots, but he pushed us to achieve, making it clear that better opportunity lay outside Appalachia.  In the end, my sister and I both earned professional degrees thanks to the expectation level and the confidence Dad and Mom instilled.  I grew up in a home that was frugal, lower middle class, and still a tad backward in the big city.  It was a peaceful and stable home, something that I've grown to appreciate more as I've grown older and realized that wasn't normal for everyone.   

Although we enjoyed domestic tranquility, our house was a spiritually divided home.  Mom had become a Christian shortly before she married Dad.  He had grown up in the church and knew much of the contents of the Bible.  However, he perceived an incompatibility between the Christian faith and science, particularly with the theory of the evolution of the species.  He knew the Gospel and had clearly expressed his disbelief it in.  For him then and now, science holds the better evidence for explaining the origins of life.  Dad rarely went to church with us, but as far as I remember he was always respectful of Mom and her faith and her desire to make church going part of my and my sister's upbringing.  In turn, out of respect for Dad, Mom made sure that her church commitments were primarily limited to attendance and not more involved roles.  There was this quiet understanding between the two of them.  If they ever shared in deep conversations about the big questions of existence or religion, I was never privy to them.

If Dad and Mom ever had any significant marital crises, my sister and I never knew about it.  From my vantage point, their marriage was always respectful and harmonious.  I grew up never once doubting my parents' loyalty to one another.  I gradually heard of other kids' parents getting divorced and such, but I can honestly say the thought of my parents splitting up never entered my mind. 
I'm sure they had their share of disagreements and some arguments and hurt feelings along the way, but they never hashed it out in front of us.  Overall, my childhood had very little drama.  I grew up generally happy, knowing that I was loved.  I could count on one hand how many times Dad actually said, "I love you," but he said it every time he made sure I got to ball practice and games, took us hiking through Red River Gorge, or took the time to teach me something new, often related to one of the many hobbies he pursued over the span of my childhood, although I must admit is was hard to get too charged up over bird watching as a kid.  Mom, on the contrary, was the one who always made sure to hug and say, "I love you" every day.  Dad was more stoic and mom was more feeling.  Together, they made a pretty good team.

Two significant events occurred for me spiritually that would begin to put some distance between me and Dad.  In November 1977 (at age 10) I made a profession of faith in the Gospel and committed my life to be a follower of Jesus.  I had been attending the small Baptist church that on most Sundays we walked to just about half a mile from our house.  I can remember listening attentively to the preacher and soaking up the Sunday school lessons.  My pastor was a gracious man and a good Bible teacher.  I remember him coming to the house and talking to me to make sure I understood my decision before I was baptized.  I don't remember my Dad being around during any of it.  I think he chose to remain on the outside, showing neither support nor disapproval. 

The other event occurred in 1986.  I was a freshman at the University of Kentucky on a trajectory toward becoming an engineer. However, I felt a "calling" to change directions and pursue vocational ministry.  I didn't know what all that meant, but I knew it was what I needed to do.  I decided to break the news to Dad during supper, which was a really bad idea. Of course, I don't know if there would have been a better time.  I knew he would be greatly disappointed in me, and he was.  It was tense for sometime, and I understood it some then, and even better now.  But he remained supportive when I switched schools and began my new pursuit.  Since then he has grown to accept my vocational choice as best he can, even though there remains a disconnect between us in regards to what I do for a living.  I believe over the years we have arrived at a place of mutual respect for one another regarding our worldviews.  We've had many discussions about it, and I hope many more to come. 

Another unpopular move I made while in college was to get married in December 1987.  Mom and Dad begrudgingly participated, believing it was a foolish decision by a young man much too young for such a decision.  Cindy and I had dated for four years since our senior year in high school and we couldn't see any sense in continuing to wait.   Cindy and I were both about a month from turning 21.  Of course they were much older when they married, Dad was 22 and Mom was 21 when they married.  Just saying.

Of course, Dad and Mom both sucked it up and got on board and over time warmed up to the reality.  I finished school on time, became gainfully employed and then went on to seminary from 1992-99.  I know this had to be seven long years for Cindy, but the time flew by for me.  All this time my parents assisted and encouraged us, including letting us live with them for five months when we moved back to Lexington while we got jobs, saved some money, and shopped for a house.  Our first born came along in 1997 and Dad and Mom thoroughly enjoyed becoming new grandparents.  Grand kids always seem to make things better.


The year 2000 was the year when so much began to change.  I had just completed my doctoral studies and had been offered a job in Memphis, TN teaching church history at a seminary.  Dad and Mom retired at early ages (58 and 57) and left Lexington and relocated to the small, rural community of Nancy, just a few miles west of Somerset, Ky.  Dad continued to do some substitute teaching in the Pulaski County system as he desired.  Although mom's early retirement was in reality a major event directly connected to her early onset of dementia, Dad and the rest of us seem to down play it.  We didn't fully understand what was happening or could we possibly anticipate the journey it was about to take us all on.  I think there was a natural group denial about what was happening to Mom as we went about the busyness of our lives. 

As matters continued to worsen with Mom's cognition, doctors were visited for evaluation and in a search for answers.  In 2002 Mom was officially diagnosed with dementia retroactive to 2000 based on the information she supplied.  Reality was beginning to set in that her condition was degenerative and terminal.  In retrospect, Mom had first began showing symptoms as early as 1998 while still a nurse in Lexington when she found it increasingly difficult to do simple math.  There had been moments of confusion as well, but it was easy to dismiss an occasional mishap and mistake.  However, a pattern began to develop that ultimately was symptomatic of a certain neurological problem.

It wasn't long before she began to have difficulties with her speech.  At first it was as if she simply could not get the right words out, and then gradually she just spoke less and less until she couldn't speak at all.  Simultaneously she lost the ability to read.  I can remember moments of her frustration that would bring her to tears.  But most of this was happening while I was 400 miles away.  In some ways I didn't appreciate, at least in the early years, the significance of what was happening to Mom and what Dad was having to deal with as well. 

In an act of compassion and out of necessity, Dad began to attend a small Baptist church with Mom and a long-time friend couple.  I think Dad actually did like the preacher, which is a pretty big deal because I don't think he's met many that he has liked for long.  But Dad went to church for her.  He knew it was important for her, and the fact was she couldn't go by herself.  So, he simply went with her and made the best of it.   

Dad decided that they could no longer stay in the home they had surely hoped would be their last stop together.  It was a scenic place in the rolling hills around Lake Cumberland.  Dad cultivated blackberry bushes and apple trees.  They kept a small garden and enjoyed the quiet setting and the slower pace of life.  They had hoped to live there and spend some time travelling together. This could have been great.  But he knew that staying there with her condition was untenable.  I urged him to consider moving to the Memphis area and be with us (my sister lived in southern Louisiana at the time), but he would never seriously bite on that idea.  Instead, in an ironic twist, he went back to the place from which he had always been trying to escape.  In 2006 they moved back to Perry County to a new home just outside of Hazard, and literally just over the hill from where he grew up.  The reasoning for this decision was that Mom could be around her three sisters who still lived in the area.

Not too long after they moved to Hazard, I began to feel that Cindy and I should be open to relocating back to Kentucky to be close to them since we knew that more and more difficult days were ahead for Dad.  We began to pray about it and told a couple of people back in Kentucky of my interest.  I absolutely loved teaching at the seminary, and we loved our life in northern Mississippi, just outside of Memphis.  It was a great place to live, work and raise our kids.  But the obligation to my parents weighed heavily on me.  I had hoped that I might get close to Hazard - maybe back to Lexington or Louisville, but a year and a half passed and no opportunities came. 

On May 20, 2008 I got a call from the chair of a pulpit committee from the First Baptist Church of Hazard.  On July 13, I had accepted their invitation to come and be their new pastor.  If you don't know how this process typically works, that's really fast!  In August we had relocated and were settling into the parsonage.  Dad would certainly call that luck.  I call it providential.  Not long after we arrived the situation with Mom did get difficult.  She went through a belligerent stage with Dad and she came to live with us for a month.  Dad would have been up the proverbial creek without a paddle, if we had not been there.  There were a few more incidents like that, but the phase passed.   

Now we are going on six years in Hazard.  It was difficult, frustrating and sad watching Mom deteriorate and observing Dad dealing with it.  I watched Dad move through the stages of grief just as you would read about it in a textbook.  In the early years he (and the rest of us) experienced denial.  It's a powerful natural mechanism to avoid dealing with the reality that is just too overwhelming at the time.  Then Dad went through a angry period, filled with frustration and resentment at the crappy hand life had dealt him.  I think that when we arrived in Hazard he was in the anger stage.  Then, I believe I observed him work through the bargaining with the situation and begin increasingly to accept his reality and handle it better, including getting the help that he needed.  I've seen a man who finally came to grips with his lot in life and became a more gracious care giver, although I think every day was hard and occasionally punctuated with moments of feelings of great loss.  For the past dozen years Mom was the major concern for my Dad.  Gradually, he had to give more attention to her while giving up his personal pursuits as she hit new levels of decline.  For the past five years she was his 24/7 concern.  On May 2, she stopped  taking food and water.  She decided not long after her diagnosis, and while fully cognizant, that she didn't want any artificial assistance at the end of her life.  On May 12 her body finally gave up the fight and she quietly transitioned from this life to eternity.  Today, we said our goodbyes and buried her in the family cemetery up the hill from the same creek where she grew up.   

All through this hardship Dad has been a faithful spouse.  At times his frustration has been evident, but his commitment to do whatever was best for his wife is what stands out to me.  He has demonstrated a meticulous attention to every detail of her care.  I'm sure that in that wedding ceremony in 1964 that Dad said something about being committed to Mom through sickness and health and for the better and the worse.  In 2002 Dad's world came crashing down most painfully when he was hit hard with the reality that Mom was at the beginning of a very slow and difficult descent to death.  His hopes and desires with her for retirement were trashed.  This cruel disease inaugurated a long season of the "worse" and the ultimate test of his life.  But Dad has proven beyond a doubt to be a man of his word.  He made a promise and he kept it to the very end.  He's not always graceful and careful with his words.  But in regards to Mom, I'll always look at what he did as the measure of his heart - the commitment of "til death do we part" on display par excellence.

Yet through the disappointment, frustration, anger, and sadness is there anything to savor?  How does anyone make sense out of such a sad ending to a relationship and life?

I suppose that how you answer those questions ultimately depends on your worldview.  My mother was a woman of faith.  She received the Gospel and began to be a disciple of Jesus as a young adult just before she married Dad.  Those who knew her before and after say that she truly became a different person in the Lord.  I saw the genuineness of her faith all my life.  Although my Dad does not share that faith, he always recognized that her faith was an integral part of her.  Even through her decline, Dad would find church services on the TV and play gospel music on the CD player.  And you could tell she enjoyed it.  For awhile she even danced a little, which was actually pretty funny.  We were able to take Mom to church with us for a little while after we first moved to Hazard.  She couldn't focus on the preaching, but she obviously enjoyed the music, and I think she still worshipped. 

I can remember a couple of times when Mom came to me spiritually distressed in her illness.  She occasionally experienced confusion, fear and doubts as her brain became more diseased.  As time went on, and with the lack of communication, it became harder and then impossible to know what she was thinking about such things.  And it stayed that way for a long time. 

The problem of pain and suffering is nothing new.  But you always think about it more when it's personal.  It presses you to evaluate your worldview and contemplate its meaning.  I think in the end that you still choose to believe in an existence that has purpose or one that significantly lacks it.  Either there is a meta-narrative (the story beyond the story) that encapsulates life's events that gives hope even in the dark hours of the soul or there is not.  If not, then life is merely material, and in spite of any feelings and relationships we have during this lifetime, life ultimately serves no greater purpose than simply to continue its own existence as long as it can for no apparent other reason.

I choose to believe that God exists, that He is the reason for my existence, and He has revealed Himself throughout history as witnessed and preserved in the Bible and most ultimately through Jesus, the Christ.  I believe that suffering in this life is a consequence of the original rebellion against God.  This present world is dysfunctional, painfully marked with tragedy, disappointments, suffering, and disease.  I believe that this God is good even when life turns bad.  I believe a redemptive plan is at work that will ultimately reconcile me with my Creator and restore what has been broken.  I believe Jesus is the One who makes that future possible.  My Mom believed that too with all her heart.  She has finished her most difficult race and is with Him now.  I am compelled to hope.  Through faith, even when grief weighs the soul down, hope lifts the head up to gaze beyond the suffering of this life to the glory that awaits.    

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