By Paul E. Boatman
I write these words at my dad’s bedside in early November. It is Tuesday morning at 5, and Russell Boatman’s death is expected within hours. He has seemed close to death several times in the past year, but this time the end of life seems imminent.
His 91-year-old body is yielding to the inevitable outcome of living in a fallen world. He is resting fitfully, breathing in shallow gasps, and talking to himself about needing to “get going.” He clings to life with the tenacity of one who prizes life as God’s gift, yet he has long been preparing for this passage.
Not long ago, when a physician predicted Dad would “live to be 100,” Dad asked, “Why would I want to do that?” He has increasingly focused on “going home,” especially during the eight years since Mom died. Advancing Alzheimer’s disease diminished the clarity of his thinking to the extent that he often packed his Bibles, clothing, and pictures for “the trip,” but a lifetime of healthy living now delays the final journey. As an avid runner, who may have run 20,000 miles after age 70, he had trained his body to endure. But now, several failing systems are combining to help him over the hurdle.
Nothing . . . and Everything
My own emotional responses intrigue me. Nothing, and perhaps everything, has prepared me for this moment. Grief is powerful, but I am not sad. I wish I could more effectively ease his confusion and discomfort, but I firmly resist the suggestions of medical intervention.
Dad’s living will is clear, and love does not call for tethering him on the boundary between life and death. I am secure in repeatedly giving the directive, “Don’t extend the dying process.” Yet something in my soul does not want to let go.
Memories are flooding like a tidal surge. Dad’s Christian faith was unquestioned. He has told me of his treks through significant moments of Restoration history. He and his older brother, Don Earl, were led to Christ when a preacher revealed greater grace than was ever preached in the legalistic faction of the family heritage. They found a home and place of service in the “independent Christian churches.”
When Dad received two graduate degrees from Phillips University at age 26, he was offered a professorship in that then strong Disciples of Christ school. He chose instead to accept a call to preach at a leading independent congregation, Westside Christian Church in Wichita, Kansas.
He was admonished, “You will never be welcomed back to your alma mater.” The warning was accurate. Though he gave nearly 50 years of distinguished leadership to Minnesota Bible College and St. Louis Christian College, his alma mater never honored him or invited him back.
As a young (early 30s) Bible college president, he met with several peers, including Billy Graham, to form the American Association of Bible Colleges. This organization (now called the Association for Biblical Higher Education) has accredited and upgraded Bible college education for nearly 60 years. Encouraging and promoting quality Bible college education was a personal mission for my dad.
Dad’s swath of influence is so wide that I rarely preach or lecture in a new setting without being asked, “Are you Russell’s boy?” As a 61-year-old “boy” I simply affirm, and ask, “How do you know him?” The various answers typically focus on a sermon, a lecture, or a pastoral intervention that impacted the person’s life.
Last winter when I was in Indonesia, I met Priskilla, a vivacious Sudanese woman who, with her husband, Karlie, plants churches among the world’s largest unreached people group. She wanted to tell me about my dad: “In 1991 Russell Boatman came to Java. I talked to him so I could practice my English. He asked me about my life plans, and when he found that I wanted to find a way to go to Bible college to prepare for ministry, he volunteered to pay my way.”
More than 12,000 miles from home, I was proud to be “Russell’s boy.”
Fifty years ago Dad introduced me to a rather primitive “fisherman’s paradise” on an isolated lake in Northern Ontario. This became a frequent vacation retreat where we shared father-son moments well into Dad’s old age. Though the accumulated fishing tales stretch credibility, other narratives reveal character.
One day, on Dad’s last trip at age 85, his dementia left him confused most of the time. “Secret” fishing sites that he introduced to me were bewildering mazes on that day. However, late that night as we turned out the gas lantern, and nestled in our down-filled sleeping bags, it was Dad’s turn to lead devotions.
With only the faint aura of the Northern lights filtering through the window he began his devotional, quoting from memory the first three chapters of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, concluding the sacred moment with the recitation of Paul’s prayer for the church. I had been amazed at what he had forgotten out on the lake, yet his tortured memory still held its dearest treasure.
The devastation of Dad’s memory loss has been an especially cruel irony. At one point or another he has committed every book of the New Testament to memory, believing that memorization of Scripture is an excellent way to incorporate the Word into one’s life.
The memory loss has been progressive over a 17-year period. First, he was just having short-term loss as conversations began to loop around to the same topic every few minutes. The condition progressed through persistent disorientation and inability to carry out daily patterns. In these final days, I painfully sense that his mind has fully departed while his resilient body strives to continue.
Watching him now, his vital signs waning, his confusion global, I realize I have already said my most meaningful good-byes. The moment of his death will have a painful finality. We will have a service that will be, to some, a strange mixture of weeping and rejoicing. The treasures of our memories and shared experiences will be ours to hold as long as our minds are whole.
We will grieve that this life will hold no more tomorrows together, no more joint adventures, and no more opportunities to “talk it over with Dad.” For now, I sit with him, praying and waiting . . .
At 2 a.m. Saturday, November 5, Dad died. Outlasting all expectations, his heart finally stopped after all other life signs had ceased. It happened so quietly I barely noticed.
We went through our Midwest version of Christian grieving. Normal routines were suspended as we engaged in phone calls, funeral planning, receiving friends and neighbors, family coming together, tearful embraces, a visitation and funeral with all the marks of reunion and joy-filled celebration, flowers, burial, cards, letters, e-mails, and quietness. We grieve, but not as those who have no hope.
As we settle into life without Russell Boatman, the frequency of intense grief diminishes. Weeks later, I am still finding myself saying, “Good-bye, Dad.” But my mind holds an increasingly firm grasp on an image of a moment in God’s time when I can again say, “Hello, Dad.”
Christ’s promise of a prepared place gives profound encouragement, yet the meaningfulness of his time with us is not powered by the eschatological expectation. The life lived exuberantly in relationship with our Savior and Maker is reason enough for the Christian life. The anticipation of eternal life with God is the experience of God’s final grace.
Paul Boatman is associate dean of ministries and head of the department of pastoral care and counseling at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian Seminary.