Then Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So he took them off.
— First Samuel 17:38-39
I can do all things through him who gives me strength.
— Philippians 4:13
I can’t do this.
“I can do this, dad.”
“Quit being so stubborn. Go ask for help.”
It was only three steps. I should be able to do this. Why couldn’t I manage his wheelchair up three steps? He had taken me up the side of a mountain; I couldn’t do three damn steps?
I can’t do this.
My mother sounded hysterical over the phone. “We are on the way to the hospital. Meet us in the emergency room.” Which hospital? I didn’t even know they were in Portland. As my car sped toward Oregon Health Sciences University Hospital, I did not know what I could expect on the other end. A car wreck? A heart attack? More likely. Was my mother overreacting … again?
Once in the emergency room, I scanned for my father or my mother. Seeing neither, I went to the windowed reception area.
“I’m looking for Homer Jenkins.”
She looked at her list, “No one is here by that name.”
“Perhaps they are not here yet. Is there an ambulance on the way?”
She grabbed another clipboard. “They should be here by 10:00 pm.”
It was 5:30 pm “Wait. That can’t be right.”
“It says they are driving from La Grande, to arrive by 10:00 pm”
I sat down stunned and a bit confused. My father was driving himself to an emergency room in Portland, Oregon from La Grande, Oregon. It was at least a five-hour trip, maybe more, the way my father drove. I could only wait. Watch television reruns and wait.
When my father was wheeled into the emergency room, he looked worse than dead. I had not grown accustomed to the thought of my parents as getting old. But now my father looked ancient. How had he driven for five hours?
“The doctor in La Grande said your father’s platelet count was dangerously low. He needs tests they can’t do at home. Your father pushed the gas pedal and I steered the car.”
My mother had never learned to drive. She didn’t have the temperament for driving. She often told me of pretending to drive the broken down truck in her father’s field. Her parents had never owned a car. She did not have the temperament for driving, except that night she steered the car for five hours. Previously her driving had consisted of leaning across my father to honk the horn at imagined slights of other drivers, or insisting that my father honk the horn. I was thankful that my mother did not know how to drive. I did not fear for her life. I feared for the lives of others.
The next few days brought a clearer picture of my father’s illness. Acute leukemia. My brother and sisters came and we tried to piece together what that meant. How long would he live? What treatment options were available? Cancer of the blood. Why? When?
“I don’t want radiation treatments.” My father had chosen me to burden with his plans. “David, I’m part Indian.” (This was purely fiction and romantic notion that he often savored.) “I want to go to a teepee to die alone.” (This was not meant literally) “I want you to promise that you will do the service when I die.”
My father did not want me to become a pastor. But he had driven across the country to attend my graduation from seminary and I knew he was proud of me. I had struggled to become a pastor and had finally convinced the leadership of the Church of the Nazarene to allow me to pastor a small country church in Donald, Oregon. The town had a population of 300. My church was the only church in town. Since graduating from seminary I had never performed a funeral. My father’s would be my first.
While in the hospital, my father’s health improved, or at least he gained some strength and the pale color of death was not quite so obvious. But the improvement was a double-edged sword. They do not allow seemingly healthy people to stay in the hospital. His life expectancy had been given as months or days. If it were to be months, he could not stay in the hospital. He would either have to hurry up and die or make other arrangements.
The options had been narrowed down to two: returning to La Grande, under the care of my mother, or coming to live with me in the parsonage in Donald.
Since there was a teepee shortage in the area, he chose to come to live with me. I did not begrudge that choice. I romanticized it. He would stay in the guest bedroom and the afternoon sun would filter through the large cottonwood trees in my backyard. I would sit at his bedside and read to him excerpts from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. He would die quietly with a Bible laid across his chest.
I can’t do this.
“I can do this, dad.”
“Go get someone to help you.”
“I don’t need help.”
His weight was awkward in the wheelchair. I tilted it back and tried to push it up the steps. If I could only achieve an ideal leverage, it should be easy. When I nearly tipped him over he swore at me. An anger welled up inside me.
“Let me do this my way.” But I couldn’t. Defeated, I walked across the street to a machine shop where some workmen had been welding farm machinery. They were happy to help. I was not happy to have them help. I was embarrassed. I was angry.
There were no bedside chats. There was no Victor Hugo. There was only keeping track of pills and pulling sheets soiled with feces and urine. My mother did not have the temperament for driving or for death.
When death came it was not quiet. The “do-not-resuscitate” orders had made it noisy as the ambulance came and as the gurney clattered across the living room floor. They whisked him down the three front steps without even touching them.
My sister Linda was sleeping in my guest bedroom waiting for dad to die.
She bolted awake in bed and knew dad was dead.
The phone rang. Dad was dead.
Why had she bolted awake and I remained asleep only to be woken by the more conventional telephone?
I complied with all his wishes.
… His body was donated to medical research and then cremated.
… I conducted the service.
… He was buried in the Summerville Cemetery close to his best friend.
I came out to my father when I was a senior in high school. It was an “I-know-this-is-wrong-and-God-will-change-me” coming out, but it was still difficult.
“You will always be my son and I will always love you. Regardless”
I always thought the verse from Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” meant that I could overcome my homosexual orientation. Of late, my choice to come out has gotten out of the “novelty phase.” I’m gay. I’ve got the bumper sticker to prove it. But of late, I sometime become immobilized with fear.
What if no one ever asks me to dance?
What if I become jaded and bitter by age fifty?
What if I die alone, will someone be jarred awake in that moment?
Will someone at least answer the phone?
But before I overcome my fear of dying … I must overcome my fear of living.
I can do this.