I read a book about 20 years ago called Finishing Strong by Steve Farrar. I don't remember the exact statistic, but it made the case that a small percentage (10%, I think) of men that work in ministry finish the last chapter of their lives without a significant moral, family, or financial failure.
The 90% that didn't finish strong, put their work ahead of their marriages and their families and paid the price. At the time, that little message scared me. If only 10% of men...and not just men in general, but men in the ministry, finished well then why should I believe the same couldn't happen to me? And I was just a regular guy-- a young husband and father trying to make it in business. I needed to be vigilant.
While I've thought about the book over the years, recent events have shown me firsthand what it means to finish strong...
On July 11th, my mother went to be with Jesus. Mom suffered from acute Parkinson's disease. She never really recovered from two knee replacement surgeries and, as a result, was relegated to a wheelchair for the past four years. The last 18 months were a slow decline that was painful to watch. Mom suffered from hallucinations. Being an extremely strong-willed woman, she hated her condition and her dependency.
Mom and Dad moved in with us almost five years ago. Dad was ready to retire and Mom's health was fading. It's been an honor and privilege to share our home with my parents this late in life. It's had its challenges, of course, but it definitely was the right thing to do.
Since living with us, Dad was Mom's primary caregiver. He catered to her every need, which most was not so glamorous. For the last several months, Mom couldn't move on her own. Dad made all the meals, fed her, rolled her over during the night, moved her to the bedside commode, moved her in and out of her wheelchair and all while doing what he could to help her maintain her dignity. On a good night, he might get 2-3 hours of continuous sleep. He was getting tired.
And let's not forget about the hallucinations... He'd dutifully feed the imaginary dog, remove the imaginary bug from the ceiling, and take the imaginary coffee cup from her hand.
All this took a toll on their relationship, as you might imagine. My parents had always modeled a fun-loving marriage for as long as I can remember. It was hard to watch their relationship struggle in the final years.
Mom was admitted to the hospital on July 5th. She had a litany of problems and within a couple days, it became clear that she would not be going back home.
Her final day this side of Heaven was tough to watch. She was completely non-responsive. She had been struggling to breathe all day. She would cycle through 30 seconds of labored breathing and then not breathe for the next 30 seconds. It was during the second 30 seconds that you'd wonder if she would ever breathe again, but then she would start again. This went on all day and all night. The doctors couldn't tell us how long she had left. A few hours? A day? Maybe two days? No one could say.
At about 9pm, Dad and I were alone with Mom in her room. Dad looked at me and said, "Kurt, I don't know what to do. What should I do?"
I asked him to clarify what he meant and he continued, "I don't want to leave, but I've been sitting in the blasted chair for the past 14 hours. I haven't eaten all day, I'm feeling weak and tired. What should I do?"
At difficult times like this, when life seems really confusing, bleak, scary and not very hopeful, I try to focus on doing the next right thing. We've all been there. Times when you can't see far enough into the future to know what's coming... just do the next right thing.
Just do the next right thing...
For Dad, the next right thing was to grab some dinner and try to get a few hours of sleep in his own bed.
For me, the next right thing was to stay with Mom. We weren't going to leave her alone. The next 3-4 hours allowed me to pray and just talk to my mom. It was a sweet time with her.
About 2:30am, Dad returned to the hospital and I went home. I was in bed for less than 30 minutes when he called to tell me she was gone. I immediately returned to the hospital to pick him up.
Now here's the powerful part.
Dad thanked the nurses, made the necessary arrangements and we started walking toward the elevators. Standing in the quiet corridor, staring at the elevator doors, he said to no one in particular, "Well... 'til death do us part."
I looked at him and said, "Yeah, Dad. I'm really sorry."
"I think we did everything right," he added.
It was as we talked that I saw the reward that comes with "finishing strong." Dad felt like he honored her, honored his marriage, and lived up to every obligation that he signed up for 58+ years ago. Dad, to the very end-- to her very last breath-- felt like he had done the right thing. Even when it was difficult, demeaning, sad, and messy, he did it. No regrets. No broken promises. Honor, Love. Commitment.
I've seen the reward that comes with finishing strong and I want that when my time comes.
Way to go, Dad.
Kurt Kandler is the founder and Executive Director of The 410 Bridge. He is passionate not only about breaking the cycle of poverty in communities where The 410 Bridge works, but but also for changing the paradigm of mission for the Western church and how it engages the poor.