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Angel in a crew cut

By September 7, 2018 5 Comments

Some years ago now, I walked through the valley of the shadow of death when I sat for several days at the bedside of my father, who was dying. I knew he was going, even though the doctors and nurses wouldn’t say it and my family couldn’t believe it—after all, what had brought him to the hospital was only searing back pain.

But I knew he wasn’t going to get out of that bed on his own again because in the time that I spent with him, he gradually became less and less communicative. We never had a final talk, in fact. We never spoke in that blissful way that most of us fantasize might occur in the final moments we share with those we love.

I helped him when he needed to drink, when he needed to urinate, when he felt deep pain; but honestly I don’t think he knew I was there—or rather, who was there. The intensity of the pain and the effort his body was mounting simply to stay alive drew all of his strength and will and consciousness.

Only those who’ve kept similar vigils will understand what I mean when I say that those days were among the best days of my life. Maybe things weren’t said that could or should have been; and, sure, if I could rewrite the scene, I would. But I don’t remember another time in our lives when I simply sat beside him, the man who had given me life itself—and always loved me, even when I certainly hadn’t earned it.

A man came in one afternoon, a man from my father’s church. I knew him from my childhood, but he wouldn’t have been the man I thought the church might send. He was my father’s district elder, and it was his job, I know, to visit. But he was there. When he came in, I told him my dad likely wouldn’t know he was there.

That didn’t stop him. This burly guy I remember as a truck driver walked up to the bedside, took my father’s hand, and spoke to him as if he could understand every last word, even tried to engage him in conversation that didn’t have a chance of starting. Once he realized that, this burly angel of mercy simply talked, told my father that throughout his own life he’d always looked up to Dad, told him how as far as he was concerned, my father was one of those men he’d call truly Godly, how much he’d meant to him, a model of a Christian.

A big man with his hair square as a GI, a guy I had some trouble thinking of as an elder, a man I don’t know that I’d ever spoken to before—that man looked into my father’s agonized face, held my father’s hand, and told him in no uncertain terms that as far as he was concerned, my father had modeled Jesus Christ in Oostburg, Wisconsin.

And then he backed away from the bed, looked at me, shook my hand, and left, wiping away tears.

I honestly don’t know whether any of that got into my father’s mind or heart, whether he heard those words or picked up a hint of the warmth of the hand that held his. My guess is that he didn’t, but I don’t know. The nurses had told me they’d often been surprised by what people in my father’s condition did hear.

But I know I heard it—every single word of that truck driver’s testimony.

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” says Psalm 23 boldly, “I will fear no evil for thou art with me.”

That afternoon, He sent a truck driver.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Yup, God did.

  • Kent says:

    Thank you, James.

  • Sara S Tolsma says:

    Lovely! Thanks for reminding us that God often shows up in unexpected ways.

  • Stephanie D says:

    Thank you, James! You took me right back to the place at my father’s bedside as my husband and I watched and waited, sighed and prayed during Dad’d last days on earth. Like you, I experienced those days as sacred. It was excruciatingly painful, yet I believe that I saw recognition and gratitude in Dad’s eyes periodically, acknowledging that we were with him. Similarly, we were personally visited by God in a surprising package. Just minutes before Dad took his last breath, a young nurse’s aide knocked softly and asked if she could read a few words from the Bible with us. “Yes, please!” We sensed that God’s presence in that place with us as she left and Dad’s breathing slowed until with my hand over his heart, I could no longer feel it beat. God with us….sacred spaces……holy holy holy!

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Thank you for this faith-filled testimony and remembrance!

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