June 22, 2009


My father has every reason to be self-centered these days.

His legs no longer move him from here to there. He is fifty pounds less the man he was just a short season ago. His bones press outward under his dermis like knobby sticks in a pile. He cannot put on a shirt without ready assistance. He is dying, adagio.

If ever there were a time for self-absorption, for pity and loathing heaped on his own head, this would be it.

We all held hands around his hospital room -- an impromptu sanctuary consecrated amid hoses, drips, and medicinal odors. The bubbling water in the little tank on the wall provided our only prelude music—its gurgle, I suspect, a baptismal image. It seemed good and right that we pray.

I was all set to do my part as the “family preacher” -- an office as ambiguous as it is honorable. Then a sacramental query fired across my brain: What if the victim was also the host?

“Dad, will you start us off?”

No hesitation. He cleared his throat, moistened his tongue with a sip of water. The way he dropped his head to pray suggested that he would have fallen prostrate, would his body have allowed him the ancient gesture. His voice was strangely high-pitched, high up in his throat, as if suddenly he was in a different way.

Dear Lord, we just want to thank you, for your love in our lives.
Dear Lord, you have been so good to us, blessed us in so many ways.
O Lord, we thank you for our family, for being here with us now.

I broke the old rules and opened my eyes, looked up and across the room. The words came forth from his broken-down frame like a Sunday song, an artful cadence not to be expected from a man who spent his life working electrical equations and smiling upon solid facts. They were not those pious prayer-words born of denial, those praises we sling to God in order to convince ourselves. The words were more solid than that, more substantial. It was as though they had been waiting to be spoken for a little while.

Midway through the Great Prayer, he turned a corner. He began praying for his children and grandchildren, one at a time. He named each of us, even those not present, and the posture of his voice was such that one could not be sure if he was talk-ing to his family or to God. It occurred to me that this was prayer at its finest imprecision.

May God give each of you good health, good grades, and work that matters in the world. May the Lord bless you, that you might raise your own families with love and faith. May Jesus guide you in the way he would have you go, leading you always.

This went on for some time.

The length was not so much because the old man was rambling -- a mode of speech he is fond of, as we all know. No, he went on and on because he could, because there was time to take, because it was his time to take it. If not then, when? If not there, where?

It felt like a thing worth getting right, this prayer. It was fastidiousness born of love. It was one last beautiful equation to be worked out. It was his Christ-shaped shot across the bow of his stubborn demise.

It was his blessing, on the cusp of departure.

Ironic, really:
We had gathered about him in our concern;
in his courage he made it about us.

Early in the morning Laban rose up, and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then he departed and returned home.
- Genesis 31:55

Goodbye, Laban. Go in peace.