The Land of the Living

The following is documentation of a last day. It is an inadequate record of my time in a sacred space. Specifically, this is in honor of the passing of my grandfather, John Finney. And more generally, it is in honor of the loved ones that many of you have watched leave the planet in recent years, weeks, and days. Because eventually, we all say goodbye, in a sense, this is a story we all share.
Thanks for taking the time to read.



His 2 daughters doze. His wife sleeps only lightly. The hospital room hums with the gurgle of water, a drone of machines, and his labored breathing. His eyes are closed and mouth open as though in a deep dream. His skin has become papery thin, but his white hair flows the same as always. He gives no sign of interaction – no response except a foot’s twitch or the hard gasping reflex of breathing. Sometimes it looks like he is just sleeping. Resting. Sometimes he gets clammy and it looks otherwise. They think this is his last night.

He is John Woodrow Finney. His 95 year old body is laying in that bed. But when he walked, he walked tall like John Wayne. He swaggered with that same strong, slow, deliberate pigeon-toed gate. Sometimes that swagger took him out to the garage to fix something, out to the boat to catch something, or out to the car to get a gravy biscuit and travel the entire country, one trip at a time. His hats alternated between fishing caps and straw cowboys. And his names changed according to relationship. He was called John or Finney by his friends; Daddy by his daughters; Grampa by his many great and grand children; and ‘Shugee’ only by his wife. As he sleeps, she leans across the bed, checks on his face, and pats his hand.

We did not sleep that night in the uncomfortable chairs, 3 generations of women surrounding one gentle patriarch. He worked to breathe, or perhaps stop breathing. He had decided to stop eating a few days earlier. His lips were dry, but even in his deep sleep, he clenched his mouth shut when offered a chip of ice. He had decided to die. The inevitable was eminent. He refused to live this way any longer. John Finney was in a final labor and we were there, like backwards midwives, present to assist this birth into new life, at the end of his old one.

It is as impossible to know the exact moment of a life’s last exhale, as it is futile to predict the time of an infant’s first cry. Birth and death are God’s possession. The built-in waiting, or shock, induced by both serves as reminder that we are in charge of neither. We are all left at some point to wait for release in-to or out-of this world. And, John was waiting for release.

What was to have been his final night, turned into a new morning. Our stiff necks and backs straightened for coffee. The room’s machines continued to hum and gurgle. My Mom, Aunt Jean, and Granny Pat had been through several weeks of their own unexpected travel, violent flu, and 911 calls, while caring for Grampa. I had only arrived the night before. But they had shared a long and taxing journey, tending John’s last days, together. The morning brought the decision to start taking shifts of rest or duty in the hospital room.

We took turns resting at Aunt Betty’s house, situated on the Black River which runs into Chesapeake Bay. We were tucked back in a rare and pristine rural waterway outside Baltimore, in view of the distant steam-billows of Bethlehem Steel. That week, the late winter wind was unusually strong. Severe gusts off the ocean tossed garbage cans and cut across the troubled grey water. It felt like something big was either blowing-in or blowing-out. Each night, our little huddle of women would gather around the dining table to eat good food, tell long stories, agree about the days events, or disagree about politics. All the while, we would take in the windy view. Granny Pat and Grampa had spent their last couple of years looking out of those huge picture windows. They had box-seats to the changing of seasons on a river that ultimately spilled out into the ocean; a smaller watery flow that connected to something more vast and endless. And I kept feeling like Grampa’s last days were shaped the same; something was about to blow through, and it was a small beginning at the mouth of something much more large, eternal.

It’s hard to remember precisely how the details of days like these unfold. It was my turn to be at the hospital with Mom. Granny Pat and Aunt Jean were back at the river house. I skootched up to the bed and pushed aside the white sheets to sit beside Grampa’s arm, and opened my worn red Bible. It has a slew of post-it-note bookmarks sticking straight out of pages, top, middle and bottom, like a book with a very bad hair day. I began flipping to marked pages, reading favorite or familiar words out loud. It was necessary to lean in, to speak into his one hearing-aided ear. I wondered how loud or soft it all sounded, inside his head, behind his closed eyes. After reading random quotes, a song came to mind. So, I leaned in and sang, rather poorly, and probably the wrong words, but it went something like:

“The LORD is strong and mighty
Jesus mighty to save
The earth is full of his glory
Creation calls, prepare the way.
His love endureth forever
His power is without an end
His strength is victory’s treasure
Let all who call his name,
prepare the way.”

The night before, I had sensed two beings in the room. They were large presences, invisible, only perceived. One was standing behind us, where the curtain was drawn and the purses were piled; the other, was next to the hospital TV which was silently re-playing dangerous animal incidents on ‘Animal Planet.’ Maybe they were angels -- cosmic taxi drivers? Maybe they were waiting for the release with us or preparing the way. Who knows? I don’t know. Really, I have no idea, and won’t argue with you if you say it sounds utterly absurd. It does. In any case, they were not apparent to me the next day when I sang, and my Mom joined me on our shift, on either side of the bed.

Flipping through pages, we both randomly read verses. Mom made suggestions of her own favorites. And as a soothing theme started to appear in the words, something profound started to repeat itself.
The Words...

“I love the LORD because he hears and answers my prayers.
The cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me;
I was overcome by trouble and sorrow.
Then I called on the name of the Lord: "O Lord, save me!"
The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion.
Be at rest once more, O my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.
For you, O Lord, have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”
Psalm 116:1-9

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast

Psalm 139

“I am confident of this
I will see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living."
Psalm 27:13
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Revelation 22:1-2

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect,
Hebrews 12:22-23
(all emphasis mine)

He roused. Somewhere in the middle of words about the “city of the Living God”, and the “land of the Living,” John opened his eyes. At first it was hard to tell. His eyes barely opened, just a slit. But, getting in close, looking straight in his face it was apparent. After days of sleepy stupor, he was actually trying to communicate from behind his quiet face. I leaned in close, smiled big, and greeting him face-to-face, “Hi! I see you in there… I do. We see you…” Mom quickly got on her cell phone to summon Granny Pat and Jean back to the hospital. He had something to say. He was ready for the release.

I have a friend who is a doula. She attends and coaches child-births. It is uncanny to listen to her talk about the process of birth, because it is a mirror- image of the process of death. Both require a resignation to what is happening. Both moments are preceded by groans of labor. And both are welcomed with a cry, and a breath – taken-in, or breathed-out. My friend Carol has a lot to say about the many births she has seen, but she doesn’t talk about the specific names of specific women. Because each event is so profoundly vulnerable, intimate, sacred.

After Mom’s urgent cell phone calls came those moments like birth, too intimate to name. But I will say, we repeated the day’s God Words with certainty and joy. In so doing, I felt like I was standing on shore, calling across the water to someone sitting in a distant canoe, “You are going to the Land of the Living! You are leaving the land of the dead to go to the city of the Living God. You are going to the Land of the Living were thousands upon thousands of angels are waiting in joyful assembly… you will see the river full of the water of life, flowing from the Throne of God… you are going to the Land of the Living…"

In answer to the direct question “Are you feeling any pain?” he nodded, “No.” It was his only clear message. He never did speak his thoughts audibly, he only clenched my hand. And he waited. After one final opening of his eyes, Mom said, “Daddy, Pat is coming, Jean is bringing her. Please hang on, Daddy.” And he did. His hand clenched hard then went limp. His eyes closed. His pulse dropped. But he waited for her. When she arrived, she embraced him. He knew she was there. Then with very little struggle, he left. Two nurses legally verified the still pulse. John was freed into eternity, released, at last.

Details happened as planned and we honored him in small ways. We went through his closet and each chose to wear one of his plaid shirts. The rest of his clothing was sorted into boxes, until the shelves and hangers were all empty. Later, we went to Pizza Hut for dinner in his memory. Ironically the 4 of us were seated at a table for 5. Three generations of women, and one empty chair where John Finney would have been seated. He would have smiled, joked, and happily poked fun at his wife, daughters and grand daughter. He would have enjoyed the Super-Supreme Pizza more than we did. And we would have enjoyed being with him. Instead, we enjoyed the relief of remembering the man who no longer knows pain.

Back at the house on the water, we all unloaded our coats and purses and started to get situated for travel back home. Shuffling across the wood floors, we all paused. Outside, the wind had stopped. The sun was glowing in deep reds and oranges, setting on a calm glassy river. Granny Pat called our attention to the view. “Well girls, it looks like we are going to have ourselves a gorgeous sunset.” And she was right. We all stood in the white room and looked out at the river that flows into the ocean. We stood, bathed in orange glow – orange walls, faces, skin, and clothes. We were bathed in a day that was about the end. We paused no more than 30 seconds to a minute. But I lingered longer as the women dissipated to their attending – dishes, phone calls, and plane tickets. The details of daily life swallowed up our sun-washing, and the day closed.

Nothing more to be carried away by the stilled wind, no more troubled water, all that remained was the faithful flow of something eternal, and a new day ahead.


Come to the River

Come to the river
Play in the water
And drink of forever
And be free.

How beautiful the water’s blue
As you let them wash over you
Won’t you come and stay a while?

Come to the river
Play in the water
And drink of forever
And be free.

Say goodbye to everything that silenced the songs you loved to sing.
In the river, come to the River
Come to the River, t
he River of Peace.

~Ronnie Freeman

“I am confident of this
I will see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD
Be strong,
take heart
and wait for the LORD.”

Psalm 27

k.leigh All Rights reserved.




Kimleonard said...

Kelley, thank you. That was such a beautiful tribute to that day, and to Gramp (love the John Wayne reference, that's just how I remember him!)

Anonymous said...

Something reminded me of this:


What is dying?

I am standing on the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then someone at my side says: 'There, she is gone!'

'Gone where?'

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me, not in her.

And just at the moment when someone at my side says: 'There, she is gone!', there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout: 'Here she comes!'

And that is dying.

-Henry VanDyke

I have always loved the picture of the waiting crowd, cheering to welcome someone home. Just thought I'd tell you.


sibbi said...

I have two memories of such a time-
Awaiting Chip's mom to join the Lord, I wondered if she would for a moment come out of her pre-death "sleep" and alzheimers's fog to speak to her husband of what she was seeing beyond the room and ceiling where we all were. I longed for one last time of seeing her fully aware,her eyes bright and her fiesty pesona in tact sharing what she knew of what was coming in a way none of us could yet know.

Alas, that moment did not come, she passed gently and ever so quietly across our horizon into the heavenly.

The second memory was the same orange, flaming sunset as you described. It was after Chip and I had visited Andrew's spot on the 2nd anniversary. Mine was in the mountains, not reflected in water. It was as if the mountains behind those I could see were blazing in a truly ethereal conflagration. The amazing beauty combined for me with a deeper well-know sorrow that this was for only a moment, it would be gone before I could get a picture, before I could describe it, before I could share it. Kind of like Andrew... but at the same time it was truly a gift, a special message that even the Lord knew how our day had been and that He had truly been there with us.


Kleigh said...

Thank you for taking the time to add your comment -- and your credibility -- on this topic.

I love your descriptions of the meaningful sunsets that came and went so quickly.