THIS IS THE WEEK I ALWAYS THINK ABOUT DAD. I know that it’s a special week for remembering Jesus, but I think of Dad, too.
I wrote this script on the first Palm Sunday after my Dad died following his 27-year battle with cancer. The story is true…not just based on the truth. Every fact is as I’ve reported it.
Yet I’m comforted by something Jesus said 2,000 year ago, on a hillside by the Sea of Galilee:
“If you’ve loved someone enough to mourn them when they’re gone,
God has blessed you.
Now he’ll comfort you.” Matthew 5:5, Casual English Bible
Years later, I recorded a video version of the story as well: Two Deaths.
- Reader 1 tells the personal, true story of a father’s death.
- Reader 2 is a narrator.
- Reader 3 is a narrator who also portrays Jesus.
- Reader 4 is a narrator who also portrays Mary Magdalene.
Note to Readers:
There may be a temptation to read this script with quiet reverence. But much of the story about Jesus needs to live in the moment—as though it’s happening now—instead of sounding like a story told from the past.
READER 2: There’s nothing fictional about what you’re going to hear. It’s the true story of two men who suffered and died. The merging of their two stories began several years ago, on Palm Sunday, in a church service. The author’s father had died a few months earlier, in the fall. People had told the author that Thanksgiving and Christmas would be tough. And they were. But nobody said anything about Easter. Who would have expected Easter?
In the weeks leading up to Easter, the author felt blindsided by God. In church they were reading Scriptures, hearing sermons, and singing songs about the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But the author was hearing double meanings. Many of the words seemed to apply to his dad as well as to Jesus. It was hard for him to maintain composure in those services. He was caught completely off guard by the double meanings.
Now it might sound wrong of him to compare his dad to Jesus. After all, Jesus was completely God. But he was completely man, too. The author watched a man die. A man he loved, and who loved him. It has changed the way he reads the story of Jesus’ suffering and dying.
So after that Palm Sunday church service, the author went home and began to plot the two stories side by side to see where it would take him. It took him here.
READER 1: Mid 1900’s. Akron, Ohio.
For 27 years my dad fought cancer: non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
During the long stretches of remission—and even when he was sick—Dad stayed as active as his body would let him. Even in the final years of his life—in his 70s—he was still riding his Harley Hog and climbing trees with a chainsaw to prune limbs for his neighbors and his grown kids. By trade, he was a machinist. Some would say just a machinist. A man who turned blocks of steel on a lathe.
READER 2: Early first century A.D. Galilee.
“He’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary.”
READER 1: Over the years, Dad fought the disease with every treatment doctors could offer. Chemotherapy. Radiation. Experimental therapies.
I remember seeing Dad bald from chemo and thrashing in pain on his bed at home. My granny would relieve Mom, and take her turn sitting with Dad.
Many nights, before the next day’s trip to the hospital for chemo or radiation, Dad would announce that he wasn’t going. He didn’t say why, but we knew why: the suffering that the treatment caused was too intense. Mom tried to calm Dad by assuring him that he could do whatever he thought best. As Dad struggled through those sleepless nights before therapy, he must have seen in his mind images of Mom and each one of us kids—all of us who depended on him. Because on the day of treatment he always went.
READER 4: Thursday night, A.D. 30. Jerusalem.
In the darkness of night, Jesus led his disciples to an olive grove called Gethsemane. He said . . .
READER 3: Stay here. I need to go and pray.
READER 2: Feelings of terror began to overwhelm him, and he said . . .
READER 3: I’m so afraid. It’s crushing me, and I feel like I could die.
READER 4: Jesus walked on a little further to be alone. He fell to the ground and began to pray . . .
READER 3: Father, nothing is impossible for you. Please, don’t ask me to go through this. But if you do, I will.
READER 4: He was in agony.
READER 2: His sweat fell to the ground . . .
READERS 2, 3, 4: . . . like great drops of blood.
READER 1: When Dad believed that death was near—and that happened many times throughout those 27 years—he did something that surprised me. This fiercely independent man began staying close to Mom. He’d stumble around the house, following her like a puppy dog. He didn’t want her out of his sight for more than a few minutes.
I remember taking my wife and kids home to visit, and I’d stay with Dad while my wife got Mom out of the house for a short break. But it wouldn’t be long before Dad would ask me what’s keeping them.
It bothered me at first—the thought that I wasn’t enough for him. But Dad and Mom had a special bond. And clearly, when it came time to die he wanted her close.
READER 2: Near Jesus while he prayed were Peter, James, and John—the disciples he dearly loved. Three times, Jesus walked over to check on them. But they were asleep. Every time.
READER 3: Couldn’t you stay awake and be with me for even one hour?
READER 1: I’ve lost track of how many times over those 27 years that my dad came to the very brink of death, only to fight his way back. It turns out that my granny was a prophet. In my parents’ courting days, when Granny learned of her 17-year-old daughter’s love for Dad, Granny said . . .
READER 4: “You think twice before gettin’ hooked up with them Millers. They live long and die hard.”
READER 1: Several times, at the brink of death, Dad had what many have come to call near-death experiences, in which he believed he saw and heard spirit beings. Dad never liked to talk about this, partly because he thought people would think he was crazy and partly because the messages he received were deeply personal—some of which he never told us. He believed he saw Jesus, my Granny after she had died, and my baby brother who died a few hours after he was born.
On one of Dad’s stays in the hospice center, a place where terminally ill people can stay, my two brothers and two sisters were in the room with him. They noticed him staring up at the ceiling above the entrance to the room. One of my brothers asked . . .
READER 2: (Hesitantly) “Do you see an angel?”
READER 1: Dad nodded (a slight, affirmative nod). And his eyes began to move, as though following an angel gliding across the room.
(Reader 1 acts out the motions in the paragraph that follows: slowly pointing up and then reaching out to heaven.) Dad, weary enough to die, released his hand from the grip of my sister, and he raised his arm and pointed up. Then, with a burst of energy, he raised his shoulder off the bed and reached out his hand as though trying to take hold.
“Not yet.” That’s what he whispered, reporting words only he could hear.
I know. This could have been an hallucination, caused by medicine or pain.
READER 2: Thursday evening.
Judas, one of the disciples, arrived with a large mob armed with swords and clubs.
READER 3: Go ahead, my friend. Do what you came for.
READER 4: The mob grabbed Jesus. Peter, the leader of Jesus’ disciples, instantly pulled out a sword and cut off an ear of the high priest’s servant.
READER 3: Put away your sword, Peter. You don’t need to protect me. Don’t you realize that if I asked my Father, he would send thousands (pause) of angels?
READER 1: Some of the anti-cancer therapies Dad received over the years seemed like torture. Needles stabbed deep into him for biopsies of internal organs—while he was conscious. Ten bags of brown chemicals pumped into his veins. Ten bags! Provoking intense stomach spasms that curled him into a ball and left him there, sometimes for days. Chemicals that depleted his body’s white blood cells, leaving him an easy target for any infection. We actually feared the treatment would kill him. And there were times it almost did.
READERS 2, 3, 4: Friday morning.
READER 2: Pilate ordered the soldiers to beat Jesus with a leather whip, tipped with chunks of lead.
READER 1: January 12, 1995.
After one of the last rounds of traditional chemotherapy Dad got, he lay white and gaunt on his living room couch. Whenever he tried to stand, he got dizzy. It was winter in Akron, Ohio. And he couldn’t seem to get warm, no matter how high Mom turned the thermostat or how many covers she put on him. He wanted to go upstairs, to his toasty, heated waterbed. Mom and a sister of mine tried to help him. They supported him from both sides, grasping him around his waist and pulling his arms tight upon their shoulders. But after a few steps, Dad collapsed, slipping through their arms and crumbling to the carpet. There, in a heap, he lurched and moaned through a seizure. Unconscious, my father wet himself. When he came to, he cried.
He eventually made it up the stairs. He crawled.
Mom called me that night with a question:
READER 4: “Where’s the dignity?”
READER 2: They stripped off his clothes and dressed him in the scarlet robe of a king. They gathered some branches with long, spike-like thorns and twisted them into the shape of a crown, which they jammed onto his head. They put a stick in his right hand as a make-believe scepter. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him, yelling . . .
READERS 2, 3, 4: “Hail, King of the Jews!”
READER 4: They spit on him, and then they grabbed the stick from him and beat him over the head with it. When they finally got tired of all this, they put his own clothes back on him and led him away to be crucified.
READER 2: They forced him to carry his cross. But as he tried, he collapsed into the dirt. Soldiers ordered a bystander, Simon from Cyrene, to pick up the cross and carry it for him.
ALL READERS: September 11, 2001.
READER 1: 8:06 a.m., Central Time, Olathe, Kansas.
I remember the last words Dad spoke to me. I recorded them in my journal. Three minutes after the second jetliner crashed into the World Trade Center is when my Caller ID logged Dad’s last call to me. When I see images of that crash replayed, I know I’m talking to Dad one last time. He was headed for the hospice center. They were going to try changing his pain medication, because the morphine-like patches he wore weren’t controlling his pain anymore. We all knew that given his weakened condition, the procedure could kill him.
“I’ll be thinking of you,” he told me. “I love you.”
READER 3: Don’t be troubled, my children. Trust in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms. I’m going to prepare one for you. When everything is ready, I will come and get you. Of that, you can be certain.
READER 1: Tuesday morning, September 25th.
I flew home to be with Dad. By the time I got there, he was in a coma. He had lost half his weight, and he looked like a corpse from the Holocaust. Mom had taken him home to die.
“I’m here, Dad. It’s me.”
I hoped for some response: a glance, a slight squeeze of my hand, or a trace of his smile. But I was too late. So I rested my cheek tight against his and whispered into his ear, “I love you, Dad.” I hoped the hospice people were right, that the sense of hearing is among the last to leave.
For pain, Dad was getting morphine pumped directly to the site of the tumor in his abdomen. When he seemed to be in pain, and it was hard for him to breath, we could give him a booster dose of morphine by pushing a button. But no more frequently than every six minutes—to avoid a deadly overdose.
Two days after I arrived, as midnight approached, Dad’s breathing went into traumatic rhythm—seven to eight shallow breaths followed by a gasp.
My brother who had earlier in the evening asked repeatedly if it was time to give Dad another extra shot of morphine began asking again. I remember the stroke of midnight, for I told my brother to hit the morphine button. Then I handed him my wristwatch and told him to watch the minutes and seconds, and give Dad a booster shot every six minutes.
READER 2: Friday afternoon.
They came to a place called Golgotha, which means Skull Hill. The soldiers gave Jesus some wine mixed with a bitter liquid to help deaden the pain. But when Jesus got a taste of what it was, he refused to drink it. No painkiller. They nailed him to the cross.
READER 4: At noon, darkness covered the whole land for three hours. At about three o’clock, Jesus cried out as loud as he could . . .
READER 3: My God, my God, why have you left me?
READER 1: One of my brothers asked me . . .
READER 2: “Can we pray for Dad? I can’t pray. Can you?”
READER 1: Our two sisters were at their homes a few miles away, and our mother was upstairs in her bedroom, sleeping. But we three brothers knelt by Dad’s bed that had been set up in the living room. Same living room we used to wrestle with him on the floor.
“Of all the dads on the planet,” I prayed, “you decided to hook us up with this man. Thank you.”
I don’t remember much of what I said after that. But I do remember vowing to God and to our dad that we children would take care of our mom and each other—no matter what. Then I said, “Lord, open your arms and welcome Dad into your kingdom.”
READER 4: Standing near the foot of the cross were Jesus’ mother and the disciple he loved. Jesus caught his mother’s eye and said to her . . .
READER 3: Dear woman, he is your son.
READER 4: And he said to his disciple . . .
READER 3: She is your mother.
READERS 2, 3, 4: And from that day on, the disciple took her into his home.
READER 1: Friday, September 28th.
By 12:30 a.m., Dad was fighting so hard to breathe that I knew he couldn’t keep it up much longer. “Get Mom!” I told one of my brothers. He came back down the stairs without her. She had sat up in bed, but after my brother left she thought it was a dream and went back to sleep.
“Call the girls!” I told him.
On the phone he dialed our sister who lived 15 minutes away.
READER 4: “Hello.”
READER 2: “Get over here now!”
READER 1: That’s all he said, and exactly what he said.
Dad’s breathing grew fainter. His chest muscles surged as before, but the air exchange wasn’t happening. Nothing seemed to be reaching his lungs. Rhythmic shallow breaths gave way to struggling, fading attempts to catch any breath at all. Then sounds began slipping toward silence, motion toward stillness. “It’s okay, Dad,” I said over and over as he faded away. My tone was not one of calming reassurance, but of an urgent attempt to convince.
My brother dialed our other sister, who lives 10 minutes away. “By the time she gets here,” I said frantically, “he’ll be gone.”
Both sisters called, my brother began dialing his home to tell his wife to come.
“He’s not breathing!” I said. I lay my head on Dad’s chest, trying to hear his heart. There was no sound. I pushed my ear so hard against his ribcage that it hurt me. It felt like I was pushing against a row of steel bars. “There’s no heartbeat!” I said.
My brother made the pronouncement when his wife answered the phone.
READER 3: “He’s gone.”
READER 1: I watched in horror as a wave of chalky white color swept up from my Dad’s chest, washing over his face. The sweep of color was distinct, as though God himself had pulled a shroud up over the body. Kneeling by the bed, I buried my face in the mattress and sobbed like a little boy.
After I composed myself, I took the oxygen tubing off Dad’s face and carried it into the stairway hall where the pump was still humming.
I looked at the word Power, and switched it off.
READER 3: It is finished!
READER 2: Jesus bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
READER 4: Truly, this was the Son of God!
READER 1: The family began arriving within minutes. By that time, I had positioned myself seated on the bed beside Dad, holding his jaw closed. His mouth had been open for days, throughout his coma. My wife, a nurse, had told me that if the mouth locked open the morticians might have to break the jaw to close it. We cared for Dad tenderly in life, and would do the same in death.
READER 2: Soldiers broke the legs of the two men crucified with Jesus. But Jesus was already dead, so they didn’t have to break his legs. One soldier, however, raised his spear and plunged it into the side of Jesus. Blood and water flowed out. This happened to fulfill what the Scriptures say . . .
READER 4: None of his bones will be broken.
READER 1: Two men arrived with a hearse at 3:15 a.m. They used a draw sheet to pull Dad’s body onto a gurney. When they quickly wrapped him in a white sheet, a wave of gentle sobs swept across the room.
READER 2: Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a secret follower of Jesus, asked Pilate to let him take the body of Jesus for burial. Pilate granted permission, and Joseph took the body off the cross.
READER 4: Nicodemus came and helped. The two men wrapped Jesus’ body in a linen cloth.
READER 1: A light mist was falling. One of the men assured us . . .
READER 3: “We’ll cover his face before we get outside.”
READER 1: Then they wheeled our father’s body into the night.
Out into the soft rain, we walked. To the hearse parked in the road, at the end of our driveway.
As the men slid the gurney inside, its four legs folded beneath, forming a shelf that held precious cargo. As the hearse drove away, my family stood scattered in the street and the front yard, watching the taillights glide slowly into the darkness, until there was nothing more to see.
READER 2: As Jesus’ body was taken away, the women from Galilee followed. They saw the tomb where his body was placed. Then they went home to prepare embalming spices and ointments. But by the time they finished, it was nightfall—the beginning of Sabbath. So they rested, as the law required.
READER 1: Monday morning, October 1st.
At the graveside, the military honor guard was one man short. They wouldn’t be able to fire the salute to Dad, a World War II veteran who had fought in General George Patton’s army. My youngest brother, who had served in the military, volunteered to fire the salute. He was the one who always took Dad hunting, including that last day when Dad was able to be up and about. Dad was so weak on the day of that hunt that my brother knew Dad wouldn’t be able to walk more than a few steps. So he drove the pickup truck as deep into the woods as he could, and he prayed that God would give Dad one last squirrel.
A squirrel died that day. Dad stood beside the truck and shot it out of a tree.
That brother of mine raised the M-1 rifle and fired three volleys into the sky. I could see the sunshine glisten on the tears pumping down his face. But I was smiling, for the scene was perfect. It wasn’t a stranger who saluted our father. It was a son. I envisioned Dad watching with approval from his new home, and knowing that one day soon there will be a family reunion when all the tears are wiped away.
READER 2: Sunday morning. Jerusalem.
Mary stood outside the tomb, crying.
READER 3: Dear woman, why are you crying?
READER 2: She thought he was the gardener.
READER 4: Please sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you put him.
READER 3: (Pause. Tenderly, and as though, “Mary, it’s me.”) Mary.
READER 4: (Pause. Shock and cautious excitement) Teacher?
READER 3: Go and tell my brothers that I am returning to my Father and your Father, my God and your God.
READER 2: Mary Magdalene found the disciples and told them . . .
READER 4: (With excitement) I have seen the Lord!
READER 1: I’ve noticed something astonishing about death. It changes the living.
READER 2: Uniting.
READER 4: Sensitizing.
READER 3: Inspiring.
READER 1: It would be an intrusion into the privacy of others for me to give examples of how Dad’s death became a catalyst for the healing and strengthening of relationships in my family. But this much I can say: Though we were missing one important person, remarkably, we became stronger. Stronger for that very reason.
READER 2: More connected.
READER 4: More aware of each other’s needs.
READER 3: More available to step in and help.
READER 1: There’s something powerfully mobilizing about shared grief, and about knowing that one of the greatest concerns of the person who is now gone is that those left behind will love each other.
I don’t know that strengthening relationships is the reason for death. I just know that in my family, that’s what happened. In a way, Dad didn’t just die. He died for us, because his dying made us stronger. And his commission, sealed in promises we made to him during the final months of his life and that we repeated on his deathbed, is that we would love each other the way he loved us.
Maybe someday—hopefully a long time from now—my dying will do the same for those I love.
READER 3: Dear children, the time has come for me to leave you. How brief are these moments that remain, before I enter into my glory. Dearest children, I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other.
READER 2: Love each other.
READER 4: Love each other.
READER 3: Just as I’ve loved you, I want you to love each other. This love you show for one another will prove to the world that you are my children.
(All heads up looking at the audience.)
READER 1: Who could refuse their father’s final wish?
Copyright 2002, Stephen M. Miller. All rights reserved.