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We played a lot of catch.

During the last year of his life, my dad could hear very little, and what he heard, he couldn’t process. We did not have profound conversations about important topics. I could not tell him how much he meant to me.

He could throw and catch a small, squishy, plastic ball with amazing accuracy. Perhaps he still possessed the muscle memory from his nine years as a paper boy in Zeeland, Michigan.

Dementia took so much from this man who had patiently taught the mysteries of trigonometry, and sat in the passenger seat of a car with hundreds of fifteen-year-olds who were learning to drive. Thankfully he had his own brake. He loved cars, the Detroit Tigers, Hope College basketball, and the church.

There was not much left of him at the end, and yet his caregivers said that amidst all the indignities, he still greeted them with a smile, and took delight in silly interactions.

When I visited, we threw the ball back and forth with a kind of steady rhythm. Sometimes another resident or two wanted to play, and we brought out another ball. They usually didn’t have his coordination, but he patiently waited and watched and welcomed.

He always encouraged us to greet people by name. He was famous for his alphabetical seating charts and precise instructions for handing in homework that resulted in a tidy pile already in alphabetical order, for ease in grading. The charts were his way of remembering more than 125 names each semester. Using names was an act of kindness that acknowledged personhood and value, and showed his delight in people, even the most obstreperous students.

I’ve read many powerful tributes on this blog where people reflect on the dying process of their parents. There can be much wisdom from those who are transitioning into the nearer presence of God. So many profound spiritual experiences. My dad and I played catch.

A friend lost her father about the same time as I did, but her dad had been fully present with the family until his last few days. She will say periodically that she is having a hard time, or that something had set off her grief. I have to admit that while I miss my dad, I feel a sense of relief. Care-giving was such hard work for my mom, though she did it with grace and valor. I’ve occasionally wondered if I am a cold-hearted person who doesn’t feel grief and loss.

Then I remember the funerals I’ve attended over the last several years of men from the church or the college who were mentors and friends. I would find myself sobbing and wonder why I felt such deep grief. It took me a while to realize that each time I was also grieving my dad, even though he was still alive. Each step of dementia and increasing deafness was another loss of connection.

At the end of his life, dad no longer knew our names. But he knew he delighted in us. And he knew that he was a child of God, and that he belonged, body and soul, in life and in death, to his faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. His death was quiet and peaceful, like his life. I am grateful for him, for his wisdom and example, and for the gift of playing catch.

Thanks be to God for the saints who now live in the nearer presence of God.

Lynn Japinga

Lynn Japinga teaches religion and women’s studies at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. In her spare time, she enjoys swimming, weight training, reading, and walking her stubborn but affectionate grand-dog, Wrigley.

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