Day 365. The last of my firsts.
On late Saturday afternoon of March 16th, 2013, I sat on the side of that hospice bed in which Annie had spent the previous eleven days and nights. She was yielding very graciously to the ebbing away of health and breath but she would give no such warrant to the departure of life, strength, purpose and praise to the glory of God. This was not a denial of her days being numbered. It was determined faith in the fact that God had ordained the number and purpose of them all – however few or many. As it unfolded, she had just three evenings left in that bed before she would begin her days without pain and number. Although neither of us knew this at the time, Annie operated as if she did; and by the grace of God, her final week had beautifully and powerfully played out like the final verse of the last Psalm:
Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD. – Psalm 150:6
For as long as God gave her breath – fleeting though it may have been – she desired to exhaust it in the service of others for the glory of her King.
That Saturday afternoon marked the first of our lasts.
She had just masterfully (and quite mysteriously) orchestrated a surprise birthday party for me. Hours before this moment, the room had been abuzz with friends, family and food. I didn’t really feel like partying. I just wanted to be alone with her. I would frequently look through the crowd to catch a glimpse of Annie as she lay quietly content. It was harder to make out her smile behind the oxygen mask but her eyes were always the window to her soul and though her body was ravaged with horrible pain and weakness and sapped of breath, I knew she was delighted – and that delighted me. This was Annie wanting to lavishly labour her love for me one more time, in a way which would play out boldly, colourfully and joyfully before us both. I know how much it frustrated her to be incapacitated. I know how it pained her to not be able to do something to outwardly demonstrate the great love she had inside for me. That party remains symbolic to me. It was symbolic of all that Annie had said to me regarding our past, her end and my future; “…Ryan, I just want you to be happy.”
That Saturday afternoon, the room was quiet and still; and the sense of the incoming storm was tangible – the size of it, however, was unimaginable.
Annie’s physical capacity to speak was waning rapidly due to her oxygen levels decreasing. However, she maintained a semblance of communication until the evening before she was called home. I knew that the palliative care nurses were going to do the best job of ensuring Annie had as much comfort as possible, but as a husband, I wanted to walk as far into the Jordan with her as I could. I asked Annie what would be the essential things that she would have need of; my growing concern was that she would want something but not be able to say it – just the thought of that broke my heart. She came up with thirteen things and I drew out pictures on a jotter of each one so that when she could only moan or groan for attention, I could show her the pictures and point to them until she nodded her head and I could act accordingly. The system worked well for us. I still have the jotter. ‘Ice cubes’, ‘Drink’, ‘Oxygen’, ‘Wet wipe!’, ‘Phone’, ‘Tissue’, ‘Open Window’, ‘Fan’, ‘Back Rub’, ‘Hungry’, ‘Toilet’, ‘Nurse’ and of course one of the most often pointed to, ‘Pain!’. What about prayer? What about bible? They didn’t need to be written on tablets of paper. The need of those was too constant to be occasional.
Though I choose when to remember it, I will never forget the evening of my birthday in 2013. It was one of the most painful evenings of my life.
I will never share the full horror of those last three days. But what you absolutely must know is that within those horrors, Jesus was more present than I have ever known Him before. No matter how great the darkness, darkness will never extinguish light.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; – Psalm 23:4
I imagine many of you reading this know Psalm 23 very well. ‘The LORD is my shepherd.’ But do you know the experience of Psalm 23:4? Better yet, do you know the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23 at all? Are you His? Does He lead you? Does He guide you?
On the evening of March 16th, Annie’s condition took a traumatic turn for the worse. She slipped into a state that I had never seen before and came under overwhelming physical pain and distress. I remember seeing her slip in and out of consciousness and I called for the nurses. When an airplane passes through heavy turbulence, I find you always look at the stewards. They are the experienced ones. Your fears are allayed or amplified simply by the nuances of their expression. In the same way, when the nurses came, my eyes fixed on their expression. I remember seeing the face of one of the nurses and my interpretation was a bleak one. And then I heard that awful sentence leave Annie’s mouth in desperation…“Help me!”
Those words echoed in my head as Annie slipped into what I was entirely convinced was now the sleep unto death. I lay on the bed, beside her and I cried and cried and cried. I felt like my spirit and my heart had been crushed and cursed. This was the Psalm 88 moment of my own soul.
…darkness is my closest friend. – Psalm 88:18
All I could think about were those two words. All that Annie had ever said seemed to evaporate under the all consuming gloom and formidable weight of those two little words. “Help me!” I tried in vain to replace them – to drown them out. I desperately hoped she would ask for something. Anything. It didn’t need to be profound. It just needed to be better. I squeezed her hand gently three times – our code and custom for silently communicating “I love you” to one another – but she didn’t return the three squeezes. And it seemed my prayers were in vain too as I wept bitterly before the Lord.
In my jotter, this is an extract from what I recorded of that long and torturous night…
‘Read Psalms (62/63). Remembered [Jesus’ words to] Lazarus: “[This] will not end in death.’ Wished this were true for me. A few more minutes to replace “Help me!” Could only wish. Not even three squeezes. [But] ‘YOUR LOVE BETTER THAN LIFE!’
I remember what I was thinking as I lay on that bed crying. Lazarus had his life given back to him, by Jesus, and although he would one day die again, he and his family were given more time to talk and enjoy and cherish one another. I remember thinking “Lord, I’m not asking for Annie’s life back, I’m just asking for a few more minutes with her.” This is one of the many bitter agonies of the unreasonableness of death when juxtaposed with the ambition of life. No matter how much life you have had or have remaining, the craving for another drop of vitality intensifies when death’s vice presses in. One more day; one more hour; one more minute. In those bitter hours, I would have given anything for sixty more conscious seconds with Annie. At that time, by faith, I simply had to hold onto something greater than life and greater than death: the lovingkindness of my Sovereign God and Saviour whose faithfulness and love endures forever.
My jotter continued…
Very early on the Sunday morning of March 17th, Annie came out of what I believed was her death sleep. According to my jotter, she asked me “Am I dying?” and I responded “…I don’t know my dear…Jesus only knows if He is going to call you home.” Gradually she increased in consciousness. She even asked “Do you remember if I asked you if I was going to die?” As dawn broke she also asked that we would praise and worship together. I recorded one thing she said in her prayer: “I love You, Jesus!” Never did four words ever sound sweeter to me! I still carry the memory of what I once thought would be her final two words (and have wept this morning as I wrote of them) but like all the burdens we bear under Christ, they are light and momentary. Even now the strength of that four-word prayer lifts me heavenward and floods my heart with delight.
…weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning. – Psalm 30:5
As that Sunday morning unfurled, Annie took moments to impart instructions which at the time I was reluctant to receive. She repeated to me her blessing for remarriage – though at the time it felt more like a curse. And she reminded me that when she was to breathe her last, I was not to panic. She told me not to be afraid. She told me to ensure friends and family were alongside me in those final moments. She squeezed my hands. Three times. Lots of times.
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the LORD has helped us.” – 1 Samuel 7:12
The days that followed were full. Full of more trauma. Full of greater physical trauma than that which had already been. Trauma I will not speak of. And yet, the worst had in many ways already passed. Those hours on Sunday morning, March 17th were our Ebenezer. The Lord had brought us through a great storm. A final rehearsal to prepare us for the last of the lasts. And yet those days were full of testimony and treasure. I recall Annie giving me instructions for constructing the wedding invitations she had designed for some dear friends. And I will never forget the gospel message she preached on Sunday evening to someone very near and dear to me. I recorded some extracts of her words which – though laboured with extreme breathlessness and interrupted with shallow sucks into an oxygen mask – were laden with love, peace, assurance and joy:
“It’s a free gift!…When I was young I used to listen to those Christian songs…I loved them but they were annoying too…I loved Jesus but I knew following Him would be hard…He didn’t promise it would be easy…but I wouldn’t change a thing!”
Annie was called home at 10:30pm on Tuesday, March 19th 2013. It was a hard day. I was ready for her to be called home the day before. I had recorded in my jotter that at 1pm of that Monday afternoon she had squeezed my hands three times, one last time. I was so ready for Annie to go home and leave her bed of pain and discomfort that I even called upon the Lord to call Annie home that night. With a strange mix of hope and despair, I watched her breathing rhythms as the seconds between each increased. Sometimes six seconds. Sometimes twelve seconds. There were moments when I was almost certain that she would not suck in for air again but again she would labour for another breath. We had noticed tears welling up in her eyes and when she had momentarily come out of sleep, Annie’s brother had asked her if the tears were sadness, joy or mixed emotions. She indicated that they were a mixture of both joy and sadness.
In the very small hours of Tuesday morning I began reading the final chapter of Pilgrim’s Progress to her and finding great comfort in it myself. I never imagined watching her cross the Jordan could be so hard but took great comfort from John Bunyan’s description of Christian’s tumultuous crossing of the River of Death as his dear friend, Hopeful – who seemed to have had a much smoother crossing – encouraged him.
“These troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters are no sign that God has forsaken you, but they’re sent to try you, to see whether you will call to mind that which you’ve received before of His goodness and depend upon Him in your distresses.” – Pilgrim’s Progress
I remember her final morning as if it were a few hours ago. I washed Annie and dry shampooed her hair. I conditioned her skin with lotion; her fingers and toes. She was unresponsive but I just wanted to take care of her. Her brother and I cycled her arms and legs gently in an attempt to keep her from having to suffer any discomfort in silence. She was no longer able to point to the pictures I had drawn a few days before.
A couple of hours before she left me, I was sat at the foot of her bed with family and friends. We spoke of the Lord and sang gently. At around 10pm folks were hungry and I should have been but I suddenly came over with a great sickness in the pit of my stomach. As folks went to eat, I felt what I can only describe as a mysterious almost physical tearing of the one flesh union that Annie and I shared. I have no biblical warrant for maintaining that such a thing could manifest itself physically, but that was exactly how it felt. I had no reason to think she would go yet. Although her breathing was laboured it was frequent and I imagined that she would most likely have another day. I spoke to her and said things that would only be meant for her and the Lord. Dear friends, Ben and Rosie, came in to say good night and before they did they sang from an old hymnal (the name of the hymn escapes me right now, but they will let me know and I will edit this post accordingly). Then suddenly, as they were singing, Annie took in one final breath…and then that was it.
Seconds could not be counted while time stood still.
In that final half hour I had with her, I noticed a single tear gathered in the corner of her eye. And, as I have said before, the mystery of that tear is as deep as the ocean to me. Was it pain? Was it sadness? Was it joy? Was it frustration? This side of heaven my only consolation comes through faith that when breath and spirit left her body that moment, every tear she ever cried was wiped away.
My tears continue. My Saviour consoles. My hope and my joy increases.
My God. My Heavenly Father. My Lord and Saviour. My Comforter. You have been exceedingly, abundantly good to me. I wish I could say that in the last 365 days I have been constantly good and gracious and faithful in response. I have not. My race continues and my regrets increase. And even when my desire to honour you in the light and beauty of holiness increases, I see the hideous intricacy of my hidden sins more and more. Lord, I didn’t think I could make it this far. I didn’t know how I was going to make each day. I have wondered how you would tolerate my neglect and failings over the last year. I learned from and leaned on Annie a lot more than I had ever imagined – a lot more than anyone would imagine. In certain areas, a lot more than I should have. You gave to me a strong and delightful woman. And when You took her away I felt more than half dead. But You have been faithful and gracious and merciful. You have blessed me with Your company. You have not abandoned me when I have abandoned You. You have not stopped cheering for me when I have doubted You. You have not stopped lifting me when I have fallen. You have not stopped assuring me “I’ve only just begun!” when I have felt at the end of myself. You have never let me go. I thank You for all that You have given me. I thank You for the years You gave me with Annie. I thank You for the testimony You gave to her and the opportunity You have given me to tell others of it – of You. I thank You that Annie is with You, which is better by far. I thank You that she completed the race You marked out for her. Thank You that I had the privilege of witnessing Your miraculous work in her. Lord, please continue to grant to me the faith to persevere and the peace to endure and the voice and opportunity to declare to others that Jesus Christ, Your only begotten Son, is risen from the dead and in Him and Him alone is forgiveness of sins and life abundant! I pray that You would use the testimony of this blog to bring many into Your eternal family. I ask that those dear friends and family of Annie whom she prayed for so much and so often, would be transformed by the regenerating power of Your Holy Spirit. I love You. In His Name and according to His work on the cross, on my behalf, Amen
In His Arms,