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Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Passing of My Father


Miracles are all around us. They happen everyday. Some are small and tend to go unnoticed or get chalked up to coincidence. Others are so monumental they are impossible to miss—they change us, they shape us, they make us who we are supposed to be. What you are about to read is about the latter kind of miracles. An undeniable core of facts speaks volumes in this. May you find your time here well spent.…

Around October 2008, my dad was diagnosed with stage four cancer of the lungs and the areas surrounding the lungs. He was never a smoker, and was an avid athlete his entire life, yet he found himself with this condition. We believe it may have stemmed from his exposure to the asbestos-lined compartments of the F4U Corsairs he worked on in his navy service during the Korean War. He had previously beaten cancer in the early 1980s, but it had left him scarred, and with an apparent unknown source of cancer still lurking inside of him, which seemed to have reared its ugly head again most recently.

Most people, let alone someone of his age (79), do not last long with the advanced type of cancer he had, but he found himself still with us after a year. His breathing became increasingly labored, and by October he was on oxygen around the clock at home, but he was hanging in there. Then came his fateful ordeal in the hospital in late October/early November of 2009, when he went to see about the pneumonia he had been enduring. He was doing okay being treated for the pneumonia and hoped to return home soon when he accidentally breathed in some scrambled eggs, necessitating an emergency windpipe clearing and a breathing tube to be placed in his mouth and down his throat, putting him in ICU. To further complicate matters, it caused serious secondary infections in his chest. Things were not looking good.

These were the circumstances that Elisa, my mother and I visited him the first time in the hospital. I believe it was Sunday, November 1st. He was heavily sedated to keep him from feeling choked by the breathing tube and to calm the overall panic attending shortness of breath. He had short moments of awareness, however, and I felt compelled to minister to him. Ever since a series of amazing and undeniable miracles sixteen years ago left me no choice but to discard atheism and become a Christian, my firm conviction has been in the words of Jesus Christ, who said “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). I didn’t want to risk the possibility that my ailing father might not have the chance to accept that, even if he was heavily sedated.

I played him some Christian songs, read him a psalm the Lord had given me for him (Psalm 107), reminded him of my miracle-filled testimony which he had read earlier that year, and shared the hope of the Christian gospel. His eyes were closed the whole time and I wasn't sure if he was sleeping. At the end I said, "Dad, if you believe Jesus is your Savior, move your feet or squeeze my hand." Instead of doing either of those, he squeezed my mom's hand. This caused me some confusion and doubt, heightened by the fact that he opened his eyes soon after that and looked at me with an ambiguous confused look as if seeing me for the first time or something (a look we all came to recognize upon further visits). I tentatively told some people at church and on a prayer chain of the hand-squeeze news but requested that they continue to pray for his sure salvation. Some people seemed to think it was enough, but they weren't there and didn't know how sedated he was, plus I think they may have projected similar stories upon mine. My most discerning friends were with me that we needed to keep praying.

As the weeks went on and I spent more and more time with my dad, I began to doubt more and more that he had heard me and began leaning more toward the idea that he only heard something along the lines of "squeeze hand", which was something that was being said frequently in those early days when he was so heavily sedated in ICU. So I kept praying and asked everyone to do the same, for opportunity to share with my dad for his sure salvation.

Following a tracheotomy which put the breathing tube down into a hole in his neck directly in to the trachea to the lungs, my dad for a time made a brief recovery and was out of ICU into a regular room, and was as alert as I'd seen him, even though he still could not talk. He was even able to gently applaud a few songs that I sang him. Hopes were high, so even though my time with him was brief, I felt I would have more quality time with him later that week, so I went home to spend a few days with my family whom I had seen very little. Little did I know that Dad would soon take a drastic turn for the worse.

For years he had always said he never wanted to be kept alive by machines, but now as long as there was a chance that he might be able to be weaned off the breathing machine (ventilator) and go home, we all deemed it acceptable to keep the breathing tube in. On Thursday, November 19, only two days after I'd seen him so alert and breathing so much stronger, we received the worse kind of news. He was not going to be able to be weaned off the ventilator, plus his cancer had recently advanced to an extreme level. No hope was in sight. With no hope of going home, he was going to be given the decision on whether he wanted the breathing tube removed or not. As it turned out, he was unable to make that decision, and it appeared he no longer had the short-term memory capacity to hold the thought in his mind to make an informed decision. The next morning, it was as if he had never heard anything about it. Always an optimist, a part of him seemed to keep up the hope of getting off the tube and going home. But another part seemed to have given up.

By the time I saw him again on Saturday, November 21st, he had become mostly non-responsive, either sleeping or staring into the corner most of the time. I felt terrible for my brother Michael who had just arrived that day from Texas—to have Dad not respond to him was devastating. I requested more prayer for more opportunities for me with my dad, but I began to worry that I had waited too long. I had some hope in that hand squeeze those weeks ago, but much more doubt to the point that I didn’t want to “leave it at that.” I continued to play soft guitar music for my dad as I had been almost constantly, feeling that I was comforting him at some level. (My stepmother Nancy commented that it sounded like I was playing the harp, which I told her is something I do intentionally, which led to later conversations about how we both always wanted a harp. More on this later.)

The next day, Sunday, November 22nd I spent most of the day in my dad’s room. After nightfall, I found myself alone with him for a considerable length of time. Somehow I felt prompted that “now is the time to share with him.” Honestly, it seemed pointless or even crazy because he had been entirely unresponsive all that day and the day before, generally just sleeping or staring aimlessly and not responding in any way to any questions. All I could do was pray that I would somehow reach him at some level, and that somehow God would give a sign.

I moved closer, pulling up a stool at his bedside. I began singing him some songs, hoping to perhaps wake him, but there was no response. I tried to get his attention by telling him to hear some songs I wrote, hoping I might evoke some fatherly pride in him. No response. I couldn’t think of what Bible passage to read him, so I just chose Psalm 23 (“The LORD is my shepherd…”). No response. I reminded him once again of my testimony he had read, and shared the hope of the gospel again, that Jesus is the Way, that God so loved the world that He sent His only Son so that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life (from John 3:16). Again, no response. I asked him, “Dad, do you want to see your mom and dad…and be with Jesus?” Still nothing. My heart sunk at his non-responsiveness. I dropped my head and, against all hope, begged God for some kind of a sign.

That very moment I was reminded of something . I said, "Dad, I've been praying that Jesus would visit you in your hospital room." I took a deep breath and asked, "Did Jesus visit you here?" Suddenly, he turned my direction with his eyes wide open and his mouth agape in a look of wonder and majesty. I could only interpret that as the sign I'd just prayed for. Jesus had indeed visited him! After maybe ten seconds of that, he was back asleep.

That night I told my believing siblings about it, and we all rejoiced. The next morning I called my wife Elisa to tell her the news. She told me that at about the same time that happened in the hospital room that she had just said to our boys, “Let’s pray for Grandpa Warren’s cancer and salvation.” Suddenly Aaron started saying "Grandpa Warren is going to heaven! Grandpa Warren is going to heaven!" and Sammy also joined in. That was so comforting to me because I had began to doubt some what I had seen, thinking that maybe my dad just looked my way like I was crazy or something! If you ask my boys why they said that, they will tell you they don’t know—and in fact they didn’t even remember saying it. Those who are believers immediately understand what happened. At the same time that sign happened with my dad in the hospital, God was mercifully giving me another sign by speaking through my children, melting away any remnant of fear for my dad. That was enough for me.

To this moment, I don’t remember exactly the look on my dad’s face at that moment—it was that incredible. It definitely looked like shock, then awe, then majesty and wonder. A few days after, though, I had a flash of memory of his face at that moment, and I was reminded that he wasn’t actually looking at me, but next to me. While it was happening, I just figured that was part of him being disoriented. But then I was led to understand: my dad wasn’t trying to tell me he had seen Jesus there at some earlier time, but that he was seeing Jesus at that very moment. Why else was he looking beside me, with such an incredible experience showing on his face? And why else did my children start proclaiming his salvation at that time?

There’s still more. The morning after this happened, when I spoke with my wife and she told me about what the boys had said, having found out that it was just my brother Michael and I at the hospital at that time, she also suggested to me, “Why don’t you just let your brother have some time alone with your dad.” So I walked around Pasadena for a few hours, listening to my iPod. During that time my dad was in the hospital, I had never experienced music so profoundly. It was Christian artist Sherri Youngward’s CD “These Things Don’t Change,” an album that will always be especially dear to me. It was as if her songs were telling the story of what I was going through, what my dad was going through, deepening my faith, strengthening me, giving me hope. That day walking around Pasadena was no exception, and in fact it felt like the music was literally lifting and carrying me down the sidewalk.

When I returned to the room, there was my brother actually sitting up on the bed with my dad. I was flabbergasted! I had wanted to get up on that bed many times during my dad’s stay there. Holding his hand by his bedside did not seem enough, as if some childlike instinct called me to be closer to him. But the bed was narrow and there were just too many tubes and I.V.’s in the way. I asked my brother about it and he said that the mattress (these kind have cycles of air movement in them to rotate bedridden patients) had deflated on one side, moving my dad over to that side, leaving a bubble on the other side. Michael decided to sit on the bubble to even out the pressure. As he sat there waiting on staff to figure out what was going on, that same childlike instinct kicked in for him, and he laid his head gently on my dad’s chest. After a while, he looked up, and my dad opened his eyes. They smiled at each other, my brother said, “I love you, Dad,” and my dad lipped back at him, “I love you, son.” This meant so much to me, as everyone else in the family but him had had many such moments with my dad, and now it was his turn. How fitting that God would give him this extra special time, allowing him to be the only one to lay with Dad on the bed, and to wake my dad up to have that moment! I knew then why Elisa had earlier felt prompted to tell me to let my brother have alone time with our dad. God had plans! In fact, I believe God broke that bed just for that reason! I’m pretty sure they had to replace it.

That night, after taking a walk around the neighborhood surrounding the hospital, I stopped for a while and looked up at the window of the room in which my dad lay. As I looked (as I have several times since then), I marveled at the amazing things that God had and was still doing in there, that little room, second floor, second window from the right, and Pasadena Huntington Hospital.

Then came Tuesday morning, the day of the big meeting with the doctors. My father could not decide for himself, and now it was left to the family to decide for him, in honor of his express wishes not to be kept alive by machines. Interestingly, nobody could seem to find my dad’s advance directive to that effect, or perhaps the decision would have already been made for us and carried out much earlier (coincidence?). The fact was my dad had become almost entirely unresponsive, he would not be able to be on that kind of ventilator in a home situation, and both his cancer and his pain were increasing exponentially. The entire family struggled to see clearly, our love and desire to spend more time with our dad overshadowing the reality of the situation. After all, we’d seen him make partial recoveries before, and we all knew how much of a fighter he was. Yet the medical evidence and what we could see with our own eyes could not be ignored. For my part, in what seemed a moment of clarity, I said that I no longer believed it to be compassionate to keep him in the state he was in, being increasingly ravaged with no hope of getting off the ventilator and going home. To remove him from life support was actually the natural thing to do, to allow him a natural death without prolonging his pain beyond a reasonable hope. I felt God had been preparing me for it and was at peace with it. The appointed time was near.

It was agreed. Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, would be the day. Wednesday brought a few precious moments with my dad. I began to cherish these moments that were becoming so far and few between, seeing them as gifts from God, as my brother’s moment with him had clearly been. More gifts were to come. On Thursday, the family gathered for Thanksgiving dinner on the patio area outside the hospital cafeteria. Elisa and the boys were sick and so could not make it. Two of my brothers and their families were going to all be together for the first time in many years. Their seeming irreconcilable differences had been something that had saddened my dad greatly over the years. I wonder if my dad was praying along with me that day that things would change? Well, there my brothers were together, not only outside the hospital, but also in the room together with my dad. I know Dad sensed it and rejoiced at some level. Their wives and children began to reestablish old bonds. This was a great blessing and I thanked God for it.

Friday arrived. Four o’clock was to be the scheduled time. I wore some nice clothes, somehow feeling that fitting. We shared as much precious time as possible with Dad as he slept peacefully that day. We reminisced about childhood memories and dad’s life, and we sang some of his old favorite songs, consulting the Internet for the ones we couldn’t remember. I also was at peace, knowing my dad’s condition, knowing his wishes—and also knowing the unimaginable eternity he had ahead of him now that he was right with God. Around that time I began to recall how during the previous week, I felt I was already being prepared for that particular day, the day after Thanksgiving, to be the day. “Dad’s big day,” as I later came to call it.

Four o’clock arrived. We all gathered in Dad’s room, all of my dad’s children and two of their wives, one of his grandchildren, my mother, my stepmother and stepbrother and his wife, and a few of my dad’s close friends. We gathered on and around his bed. I sat at his feet with my guitar, playing softly original melodies as they flowed from my heart. We watched a slide show of my dad’s storied life. I handed my guitar to my dad’s friend Don, who sang “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Yesterday” and a few others. I was inspired to play some cherished hymnal melodies, and led a rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Everyone sang along, even the unbelievers. My brother David gently beat his small native drum and sang one or two songs, which included some of “Amazing Grace” in Navajo. The others contributed in their own unique ways. The ventilator having been fully off for some time, my dad continued to breathe on his own, the fighter that he was. Finally, at around 6:40 p.m., surrounded by peaceful music and the ones he loved, he took his last breath here and his first breath in eternity....

I was and am deeply grateful that I was able to spend so much time with my dad before and to be there with him while he passed. The whole experience was deeply touching, and I will cherish it forever. But there was still more. That night, as I slept on the couch at my dad’s condo, something amazing happened. I woke in the middle of the night. As I lay there with my eyes closed, a vision came to me, a simple one of clouds in a dawn lit sky. This is hard to describe, but an incredible feeling of peace and power came over me. Everything felt so crystal clear and pure, as if I was experiencing the true reality that I somehow knew was meant to be but had never experienced before, as if I was truly breathing for the first time. I could feel the power of the Creator, feeling that God was watching over the entire world but focused on me at that very moment. I could feel God’s love, care, wisdom, and somehow understood that God had “everything covered” all along. I was then overwhelmed with a feeling of what I can only call the nearness of heaven, and I could feel my earthly father with my Heavenly Father. (This is similar to what I experienced when my dad’s mom passed away, shortly before I became a believer at her funeral, but more profound. I wrote about this in my personal testimony.)

It is a great witness of God’s great power and comfort that I cherished the feeling I had when I awoke the morning after my father passed away. That morning (and still since then) I found myself gazing off into the distance, reliving that experience again and again, knowing and preferring the true reality I had been given only a small glimpse of overnight. The thought that I might somehow forget that was too much for me. I prayed that God would not let that happen.

I began to pack my bags and prepare to go out to breakfast with my brothers and spend time with them at local Garfield Park. On my way out to the car, I see a yard sale across the street from the condo. Remember how I wrote that I always wanted a harp? Well, not only had I been talking about it with Nancy and others in the previous week or two, but I had literally begun obsessing about getting a harp, but trying to push it out of my mind because they are expensive and I have too many other financial obligations. What at the yard sale do you think caused my double take? Yes, a harp! There it was. I had never seen one inside anyone’s house before, let alone on a front lawn. It turns out that I got that harp for only $75, a Celtic harp, probably worth somewhere between $1000 and $2000. It might as well have been free at that price. What are the odds that I would wake up the morning after my dad dies and see a harp, just like I always wanted, right across the street from his house. Only the most hardened skeptic could fail to see this is beyond coincidence.

The more people I tell about that harp, the more people marvel. Gradually, it’s deeper significance became clearer. The next morning, I woke up early, cleared snow, and went to church to play guitar on the worship team. Upon arrival, I told the pastor and others much of what I have been writing here. First thing he said was, “Why didn’t you bring that harp!” Then he asked if I would share with the church what I’ve shared here. So I did, and after first service many people approached me deeply encouraged, full of faith and hope and a wonder for God’s amazing love and hand in everything. Between services, I drove home in the snow to pick up my wife, kids, and brother Michael. Before leaving, I couldn’t resist strumming that harp, even though two strings were hanging and it was terribly out of tune. Even so, the sound grabbed me, as if it were holding onto my spine—or my very soul. At that moment, I was reminded of the vision from the night before, of the nearness of heaven. Then I understood: God knew the longing he would put in my heart, first an increasing longing for a harp, then a desire to never forget the vision and power I experienced the night my father passed away. I just have this feeling he said to my dad, “Warren, did you ever know your son Blaine always wanted a harp? Watch this!” And there I was at the yard sale. And now I have this harp ,a tangible reminder, and I know God will never let me forget that vision. Oh, the emotions may fade, but I now know I will never forget. That harp is amazing evidence, wouldn’t you say? As I shared at second service that morning, “I thought I knew how good God is…I thought I knew. I still barely know, but I’ve been given a glimpse and can testify that God is indeed “able to do so much more than all we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

Is there more? Yes! My siblings showed further signs toward continued healing at the park the morning after my dad passed. Their kids happily played football together. This healing continued with a show of unity at my dad’s memorial on December 15th, with the cousins again playing football afterward, now in full force (minus Michael’s younger kids), and loads of love and laughter at the family gathering following the memorial. My sister-in-law shared evidence of God’s work in her and my brother’s life that had the “fingerprints of God” that only the hardened would dare call sheer coincidence. What else? After the memorial, a woman I don’t know (my stepmother’s niece) approached me and told me that she and her whole church in Wisconsin were praying the same thing I was praying—that Christ’s presence would be so powerful in that hospital room that it would be undeniable to my dad. Her daughter later shared that she had a dream of my dad, that he had just entered heaven and was smiling from ear to ear, saying, “So this is what I’ve been missing!” Just more confirmation on top of confirmation. It just goes on and on.

One of the things my dad used to say when he would adamantly reject Jesus over and over was “If only God would appear and set the record straight, then I would believe.” Otherwise, he was basically was open to almost any other religion except Christianity, which he thought was bigoted and too narrow. I too believe it is narrow, as Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it" (Matthew 7:13,14).” In the end, Jesus (God) did appear to my dad and did indeed set the record straight. That is the kind of love God has, one that reached out to my father, a man who consistently rejected Him time and time again throughout his life. Where the way seems narrow, God’s love is infinite.

Yes, “Enter through the narrow gate,” Jesus said. He also said, “I am the Gate” (John 10:7) and “I am the Way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And, according to eyewitnesses who penned the Scriptures, he died on the cross for the sins of the world, rose from the dead, and was seen afterward by hundreds of people to prove it (1 Corinthians 15:1-10). I was a hardcore atheist and never thought there was anything to this, that is until the Lord reached out to me at my grandmother’s funeral and showed me that He is undeniably real and that Jesus is the Way. And after that when I had already begun falling away almost immediately, He didn’t let go of me but showed me miracle upon miracle upon miracle to this very day, bringing me to where I now am.

I have learned that these things are not to be kept private, that when something phenomenal and life altering and REAL happens to you that you don’t keep it to yourself. I don’t want to be right. I don’t want to show off. I don’t want to say anything except to testify to what is real, to give the facts, and to share the hope that lies within me. That hope keeps growing and growing as the years move on and I witness more and more of God’s amazing love and power at work in me and those around me.

I must say more. Several years ago I had a dream. It was unlike most dreams because I knew during the dream that it wasn’t coming from me—that it couldn’t possibly come from my own mind. It had the crisp, clear mark of the prophetic, and it gripped me like no other. In it, I was in a dark basement, and I saw that my dad was lying down among boxes and other objects covered with sheets. I suddenly realized that he was not alive. At that moment I turned behind me and there was a woman staring at me wearing black with a black veil over her eyes. Up behind her was a basement window to the brightly-lit “outside world,” and through the window I could see the legs of robed people walking by. She spoke to me with a voice of authority that spoke to depths of my soul, saying “twenty-four years have been appointed for him (and a bit more I can’t remember).” A moment later, my father was alive again. Then I awoke, shaken.

I can’t quite remember the exact number of years spoken, but I do remember it was twenty-something and think maybe twenty-four. At the time, trying to understand this powerful dream, I thought “Twenty-something years—that would mean my dad is going to live into his mid 90s.” I figured it was counting from the time of the dream. But more recently, since my father’s death, I have come to understand this dream. God sometimes veils the meaning of prophecies for a time until after they have been fulfilled. Once the fulfillment happened in this case, the whole answer came to me in a complete package. The twenty-something years were not counting from the time I had the dream several years ago, but instead counting from the mid-1980s, when my dad had “beat cancer the first time.” Around 1980, he had been given only a few years to live. But several surgeries, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy later—into the mid-1980s—he found himself in remission. Consider this: If you count from the mid-1980s and add twenty-four years, you end up in 2009…this year that my dad passed away. It all makes sense, and fits with a strong conviction that had been growing in me in recent years that the extra years my dad had were given to him specifically by the grace of God—that God was “giving him more time.” I now have no doubts about this.

None of us knows how much time we have. Like me, my dad was someone who wanted nothing to do with Jesus, with the Bible, with “religion.” I was an atheist. Dad wavered between atheism and believing “all roads lead to God—as long as it’s not Christianity.” God singled me out on December 30, 1993, at my Grandma Ruby’s funeral, when I was 25. God singled my dad out on November 22, 2009, when he was 79. Does this mean we should all hold off in rebellion until God singles each of us out? Can we count on that? Do you know how much time you have? If you are reading this and hearing all this evidence for yourself, why wait? Seek God while He may be found. Trust Jesus as your Savior and be reconciled to God. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). And “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24). And “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12)." And “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). There’s nothing you can do in your own power to save yourself. Only Jesus can take away that which stands between you and your Creator. All you need to do is believe and receive. Why wait?

The day after my dad passed, I was talking with my 8-year-old son Aaron about what happened in the hospital with his grandpa that fateful Sunday night. He said to me, “That’s interesting how Jesus does that…appearing to one person but another person can’t see him.” “Huh…you’re right,” I said. Then he said, “I wonder what Jesus was saying to Grandpa Warren?” I hadn’t even thought of that…once again, out of the mouth of babes! After a moment, I said, “Probably that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life.” The next day, I shared much of what I’ve written here at church, including what Aaron said. After I spoke, my pastor got up to speak and said, “I think Jesus said, ‘Welcome!’” Whatever it was, wouldn’t you like for Jesus to tell you something of the same?

Thank you for reading this. I hope it has spoken to you or at the very least given you some food for thought. All of this happened to me and it is real. God is real. Jesus is the Way. The prayers of hundreds of people, my family’s ministry to my dad, the circumstances of his hospital stay, God’s power in inspiring me to reach out to my dad when it seemed too late—all of these played a part in this story. But the glory goes to God. He is the one who loved my dad and just wouldn’t let him go. “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).” I still can barely fathom His great love. I thought I knew....

Blaine Vanderschuit
12/24/2009
Merry Christmas

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was tremendously blessed and encouraged, Blaine, as I read your very unique and powerful story of God's faithfulness. Jesus, more than anyone else, wanted your father to be at His side. and He allowed you to be a part of his homecoming through prayer and worship. God is awesome! It is obvious that His grace and His peace are ministering to you, and He will continue to do so long into eternity. Agape, John Bonner

Anonymous said...

Thanks Blaine, Its nice to see that people have the Faith, and believe in Jesus. Your words are powerfull.

Thanks Bro. Chuck Diez

BarbRey said...

Everytime I read this it hits me harder, it's very profound, and gives you lot's of room for thought, a writing that you can go back to time and time again. Very well done, son.

your 2nd Mom, Barbara Romio