The value of life grows in magnitude when we stare death in the eye. Death is obscene, a grotesque contradiction to life. The contrast between the vibrancy of a child at play and the limp, rag-doll look of a corpse is revolting. The cosmetic art of the mortician cannot disguise the odious face of death. The death of a friend or loved one robs us of a cherished companion and reminds us of our own mortality.
Death is no stranger to my household. I have hosted its unwelcome visit too many times. The two visits I recall most vividly are the times the black angel came for my parents. Both died at home—both deaths left trauma in my soul.
We chisel in stone the last words of epic heroes:
“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” said Nathan Hale in 1776 before being hanged by the British as a spy.
“Oh my God,” gasped John F. Kennedy, as he clutched his throat in a car in Dallas on a fateful Thursday in November 1963.
“Et tu, Brute,” Caesar moaned, as he fell mortally wounded at the foot of Pompey’s bust in the Roman Forum.
I remember my father’s final words—how can I forget them? But what haunts me are my last words to him.
Death often leaves a burden of guilt to the survivors who are plagued by memories of things left unsaid or undone or of hurts imposed on the deceased. My guilt resides in the insensitive, nay, the stupid words I said to my father. I said the wrong thing, the juvenile thing for which death gave me no opportunity to say, “I’m sorry.”
I long for the chance to replay the scene, but it is too late. I must trust the power of heaven to heal the wound. What is done can be forgiven—it can be augmented, diminished and, in some cases, repaired. But it cannot be undone.
Certain things cannot be recalled: the speeding bullet from the gun, the arrow released from the bow, the word that escapes our lips. We can pray that the bullet misses or that the arrow falls harmlessly to the ground, but we cannot command them to return in midflight.
What did I say that makes me curse my tongue? They were not words of rebellion or shouts of temper; they were words of denial—a refusal to accept my father’s final statement. I simply said, “Don’t say that, Dad.”
In his final moments my father tried to leave me with a legacy to live by. He sought to overcome his own agony by encouraging me. He was heroic; I shrank from his words in cowardice. I could not face what he had to face.
I pled ignorance as I only understood enough of his words to recoil from them. He said, “Son, I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
He was quoting the apostle Paul’s closing words to his beloved disciple Timothy. But I failed to recognize that fact. I had never read the Bible—I had no faith to keep, no race to finish.
My father was speaking from a posture of victory. He knew who he was and where he was going. But all I could hear in those words was that he was going to die.
What impertinence for me to reply, “Don’t say that!” I rebuked my father in the most valiant moment of his life. I tramped on his soul with my own unbelief.
Nothing more was said between us—ever. I put his paralyzed arms around my neck, hoisting his useless body partially off the ground, supporting him on my back and shoulders, and dragged him to his bed. I left his room and shifted my thought to my homework assignments.
An hour later my studies were interrupted by the sound of a crash from a distant part of the house. I hastened to investigate the sound. I found my father sprawled in a heap on the floor with blood trickling from his ear and nose.
He lingered a day and a half in a coma before the rattle of death signaled the end. When his labored breathing stopped I leaned over and kissed his forehead.
I did not cry. I played the man, being outwardly calm through the following days of funeral home visitations and burial in the grave. But inside, I was devastated.
How much value did my father have to me then? I would have done anything I could, given everything I had, to bring him back. I had never tasted defeat so final or lost anything so precious. That was 34 years ago, but it does not require a psychiatrist to recognize that I am not over it yet.
My mother’s death was different. Her death was tranquil, as she gained the exit from this world we all covet. She died in her sleep without a struggle.
Her last words to me were joyful. She said, moments before retiring to bed, “This is the happiest day of my life!”
She had lived a widow for nine years after losing her husband. Being a career woman she continued her work, investing her future joy in her children and grandchildren. Our first child was a daughter, bringing countless hours of delight to her grandmother.
My mother had two future goals she yearned to reach. She wanted to see my ordination to the ministry and she wanted a grandson who would carry on the family name, as I was the last surviving male on the Sproul side of the family.
My mother embarrassed me more than once with the pride she displayed about these passions. She would introduce me to her friends by saying, “My son is going into the ministry.” No Jewish matriarch was ever more proud.
The family name was almost a fetish. I had been christened R.C. Sproul III. I almost wish she would have named me “Sue,” both for all the teasing I endured from my peers about that Roman numeral and for all the scatological puns that the monicker “The third” can yield.
Mother made me promise that the tradition would live on, if my marriage produced a son. It was nonnegotiable; he had to be called R.C. IV. I was not sure whether I was trying to sire a son or to continue a dynasty, but who can refuse a widowed mother’s pleas?
What made my mother’s last day on earth so happy was the converging of dreams into one single day of glorious realization. While she was applying her makeup in preparation for going to work, I was pacing the floor of the expectant fathers’ waiting room in a hospital 12 miles away. I had been there before but still did not feel like a confident veteran.
The same man who delivered our daughter finally came to the waiting room, with green mask dangling from his neck, to announce the birth of our son. My wife was fine and the dynasty was intact. After sharing the most tender of moments with my wife in the recovery room, I hurried to the phone to relay the news to my mother.
Nothing would do but that my mother would go to the hospital to see her new grandson. I picked her up at her office and took her to the hospital nursery to see the orange-haired, prune-faced newborn infant she declared uncommonly handsome. After a leisurely dinner at a restaurant, during which she expressed her unbounded ebullience, we went to her apartment where I was invited to spend the night.
As we reached the entrance to the building, we found two packages stacked against the doorway. Once inside the apartment, she tore open the packages like a child on Christmas morning. The first package contained engraved invitations to my ordination scheduled only weeks away.
The second package was from Maxine’s, a stylish women’s dress shop in Pittsburgh which featured the latest fashions. It contained an elegant dress, undoubtedly the most expensive garment she had purchased since her husband’s death. She danced before the mirror holding the dress in front of her, taking waltz steps around the room.
She bought it for the ordination but wore it at her funeral. It was too much excitement for one day as one dream was fully realized and the other’s proximate certainty was confirmed by the symbolic presence of the invitations and the dress. Within the hour she protested that she was weary and wanted to go to bed.
We said our good-nights and she retired to her bedroom, but not before poking her head around the door to say, “This is the happiest day of my life.”
I was exhausted from the events of the day and quickly fell asleep in the next room. When morning came I knocked on my mother’s door and was mildly puzzled by the lack of response. I opened the door and instantly realized that the woman in repose on the bed was dead.
It did not seem possible. I walked to her side and clutched her wrist. She had been dead for several hours; rigor mortis had set in and her body was icy to the touch. The sensation was eerie, defying logic.
Sleep makes the passage of time seem instantaneous. In what seemed like the span of a few minutes, my mother had changed from a breathing, warm, excited person to a lifeless statue. I stood transfixed in disbelief, caught in the absurdity of it. Within the span of 24 hours, I passed through the emotions of seeing my son take his initial breaths of life and seeing my mother in the coldness of death.