Do You See What I’m Doing?

I keep trying to put my father’s dying in a story. I guess I’ve thought that might help me, and possibly others, make some sense of this vale. A couple of weeks after the funeral, my son drove to my mother’s house to visit and spend the night. Mom went to bed early that evening, and my son and I ended up watching The Green Mile, Stephen King’s haunting story of death row inmate John Coffey. I had forgotten the film’s raw power. Near the end of the film, Coffey keeps telling the “boss” how tired he is—tired of the pain he hears and feels, tired of the loneliness, tired of all the times he wanted “to help and couldn’t.” One of the consistent refrains I heard, via cell phone, from my father in his last days was, “I’m getting so tired.”

Coffey’s a Christ-figure, and his death in the electric chair coursed with shades of crucifixion. I mean, how else can Christ die? Was my father a Christ-figure? All I know is that he was the most Christ-like man I’ve ever encountered, so how else could he have died other than the tragic way he did? I mean, how else can Christ-figures die?

Do you see what I’m doing? It’s so obvious, isn’t it? Trying so hard to find a story that fits, a narrative line that’s maybe just close enough for comfort, something to hold tight to for it feels the center didn’t hold.


The very next morning I read about the passing of Barry Lopez, words written by Debra, his wife:

Barry’s dearest Auntie, Lillian Pitt, guided us. The scent of herbs, the prayers, the fresh air through the windows. The light. We told him a thousand times, a thousand-thousand times, that we love him, that we will love him always, that he could cross his river now. At 7:21, he stepped in, with one last long breath.
We washed him with water from the McKenzie River and wrapped him in a Pendleton blanket.

I couldn’t quit reading that last line. My God, how beautiful, how poetic. I wanted to spit. I couldn’t quit thinking that’s how it should have been for dad. A good death.

One of the reasons I’ve read Barry Lopez for so long is that I’ve seen him as so very Christ-like, so very like my father. Yet one Christ-like figure dies alone in an ICU while another dies and is washed with water from the McKenzie River and wrapped in a Pendleton blanket? Where’s the sense in that?

Do you see what I’m doing?

I’ve long described my father as the tallest tree in my forest. But he’s been felled. That now leaves me. I moved to the front of the line. Now I’m on the row. On the long green mile.


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  1. Judy Blalock on March 23, 2021 at 8:36 am

    You dad was not really alone. I know how it feels to have a parent die without you there. Jesus was standing there to take his hand & whisk him to Heaven My grandson told me that my mother who had been in a coma opened her eyes & tears begin flowing. He told me he knew he was standing in the presence of the Lord. Take comfort in knowing that his Lord & Savior was standing right there. That’s how you will get through it

  2. owen on March 23, 2021 at 8:47 am

    soak in that water before you die, my brother, and let the scent of it anoint your body like nard

    • Meri rogers on March 26, 2021 at 6:35 pm

      I missed my mother’s 4am death by a few minutes… she walked alone up to the gates.. stories of others having beautiful communal death experiences piss me off. No one deserved such a tender walk more than my mother….i hear you on this. I know she wasn’t “alone” because of Jesus and such… but…i wanted the moment to honor her fully too.

  3. Marilyn Yocum on March 23, 2021 at 8:48 am

    Dear Son of a Sower,
    Keep on writing.

    Faithful Reader

  4. Marsha Harvey Hall on March 23, 2021 at 8:57 am

    My mom died alone in an assisted living facility. She was found on the bathroom floor. I had not seen her for 2 months because of Covid. We did FaceTime and talked on the phone everyday. I know I did not do enough for my mom because of Covid. I will forever blame myself for so much I should have done. I know she longed for heaven and without a doubt I know with her last breathe, she is there with her Lord and Savior. That’s my only comfort. All of this on this earth is gone for her. She is now in a much better place and would never want to come back. Oh how I miss her everyday. Tears fall everyday. My comfort comes knowing I will one day when God calls me home, I WILL see my dear mom again. Prayers for you and you sweet mom.

  5. Gwen Acres on March 23, 2021 at 8:57 am

    Would it help to wrap yourself in a Pendleton blanket and weep your tears?
    Humanly, your dear Father died alone. But spiritually he was wrapped in much love and God was there.
    Your words bring me to tears…

  6. Mary E. Kehoe on March 23, 2021 at 9:28 am

    John, Keep writing…as you write go back from time to time and read what you have written….the peace will have been written for you in your writing…Jesus is there in your thoughts and writing with the message of peace….

  7. Vince on March 23, 2021 at 9:50 am

    This, as usual, is so good. I lost my dad 4 years ago so can relate somewhat. Keep on looking for the story. In the meantime these stories are just fine.

  8. Robyn Langdon on March 23, 2021 at 10:58 am

    I see what you’re doing. Don’t stop.

  9. Diana Trautwein on March 23, 2021 at 10:59 am

    I cannot count the number of times I have given and/or read Luci Shaw’s beautiful poem on this very topic – When Your Last Parent Dies. Now that has not yet happened for you, but you have had such a painful glimpse of that awe-ful reality. My dad has been gone since 2005 and I was not there as he died. I had seen him 3 days before, but came back to work. Of course. My mom was with him, thankfully — but NOT WHEN HE DIED. I do believe, John, that we have a tiny amount of choice about that. My father chose to die within minutes of my mom kissing him, telling him she’d be back in 45 minutes, that she had to do at least one load of laundry and put her feet up. And she walked from the nursing home section of their community to their 2-bedroom apartment. And he left. Same with my MIL — we had all been around her bed for several days. My daughters and their husbands drove two hours north on that last day, we all spent a hour or so with her and then stepped out to get dinner. She left then. My FIL had his wife and one nephew with him as he crossed over, and my mom? Well, my seriously demented mom, sweet as can be, had me there all day, every day, for 8 days. And I was there when she drew that last, harsh breath. It’s not easy, John. My mom was a good mom, a very good mom, and very close to Jesus. But she didn’t spare me much in this life — and her death was no exception. And for me, it turned out to be a gift. But a deeply difficult one. I think maybe your dad was relieved that his most loved ones did not have to see his struggle. At least, that’s what I would be doing — finding, like you, some small shred of sense to hang onto. Hard. Wail, my friend. It’s necessary. And keep writing it out — your words are always, always welcome, even when they are hard to find.

  10. love judy tindle burke on March 23, 2021 at 11:07 am

    I did not think I had space left – Love and do not doubt You will carry on his traits and be an extension of the mighty Tree!

  11. Melody Hanson on March 23, 2021 at 11:44 am

    I lost my mother and sister in the same year. So much about my sister’s death haunts me. I think I have also been trying to find the story. She was murdered. Now there’s a story. But she was so much more than the horror of her killing. My mother died of grief.

    Thank you for continuing to process out loud. You are helping me.

  12. Duncan Hilton on March 23, 2021 at 12:15 pm

    I see what you’re doing.

  13. Sonya Thompson on March 23, 2021 at 5:21 pm

    thank you. ?

  14. Joyce Rempel on March 23, 2021 at 5:40 pm

    It’s been 20 years. I’m still looking. Learning from others, listening as they grieve. I see you.

  15. Gretchen on March 23, 2021 at 5:40 pm

    I have no good words—and I am in awe of the love and wisdom of your commenters. I did see what you did there, though. And you do it as long as you need to. We’ll be here.

  16. Abby on March 23, 2021 at 6:04 pm

    In Haiti, they say, “Mwen we ou.” “Mwen sanje ou.” I see you. I remember/miss/know you. John. I see you.

    • Marilyn Yocum on March 23, 2021 at 6:31 pm

      Love this.

  17. Vance Brown on March 23, 2021 at 9:15 pm

    I hope there is some comfort some day in the future of the beautiful words about ‘home’ you wrote in our book:
    “…That is why we keep getting up and trying again, even when the logical and sane thing to do would be to sit down and quit or drift off somewhere into the shadows. That is why we pray and live the daily prayer our Lord taught us and commit our lives to the Father and Jesus our King no matter the cost. It is the reward, a place he has prepared for us – home. I grew up with the understanding that one of these days we’d each have ‘a mansion just over the hilltop.’ Unfortunately that’s a poor translation of Jesus’ promise. He says: ‘In My Father’s house are many rooms’ Rather than some personal, isolated dwelling, think about it more like a grand family farmhouse with many rooms, one of them prepared for [your father]. We’ll all be together … all of us … home.” (p. 184) Amen.

  18. Ed. Seidl on March 24, 2021 at 6:42 am

    You’re true to your credo: “Why do I prefer melancholy to organized and ache to closure.”

  19. Jacky on March 24, 2021 at 4:23 pm

    I am listening…identifying…praying

  20. Paul Hughes on March 24, 2021 at 4:47 pm

    I am sure the beautiful Holy Spirit wrapped his strong, sentient, invisible arms around your precious father with unqualified robustness and care, preparing the costly cargo of His special treasure (the cegullah of Exodus 19:5; the “people of God’s own possession” in Peter’s riffing of that motif in 1 Peter 2:9) for the safe and warm journey to his restful, eternal home. I just know it!

  21. Anugrah Andrew on March 27, 2021 at 2:24 am

    Don’t understand to see what you are doing. But it connects to the heart!

  22. Lindsay Van Sicklen on March 29, 2021 at 7:23 am

    Wow, John. I love your reflections on movies. This one deeper than most as it pertains to losing your Dad. The one I recall from your Arkadelphia days was from the Horse Whisperer. Still share it after many years. Prayers for abundance of grace and peace.

    • Paul Hughes on March 29, 2021 at 4:12 pm

      Would love to read the Horse Whisperer referred to. Link?

      • Lindsay Van Sicklen on March 29, 2021 at 9:19 pm

        Well John’s reference was to the movie. Scene depicting trust lesson.

        • Paul Hughes on March 29, 2021 at 10:40 pm

          Oh I missed the original reference and thought you were riffing off something else.

    • judy tindle burke on March 29, 2021 at 9:39 pm

      Thank you for giving me the insight and again I meant no disrespect if you took it that way just beautiful sermon that would all help us.

  23. Jenn Williams on June 10, 2021 at 1:00 pm

    I came across your work today (twitter of all places) and I can’t stop reading the letters and poems you’ve written since your dad died. My dad died in September. He was the tallest tree in my forest, and also a pastor like your dad. He also died alone. My mom was visiting with my family to help with the kids and the crazy COVID-school arrangements. He had a massive heart attack in the middle of the night and died alone. The world is not different because he is gone, it is quite simply not the same world at all.

    All of this to say, thank you for grieving out loud in honest, beautiful words. It made space for my grief today.

  24. Betty Menzie on December 27, 2021 at 5:22 pm

    Where can i find the poem “When your last parent dies” by Luci Shaw?

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