I moved away from my hometown when I was 17 and I moved out of my home state when I was 21. Since then, I have never lived less than 700 miles from my family. Over the years, I have watched, from afar, as elderly members grew sick, got better, got sick again, and eventually died. During those times, every late-night or early-morning phone call sent me into a mild panic. Eventually, this distance and these experiences also shaped the way I thought about more immediate members of my family.
I always thought my father would die of a massive heart attack. He wasn’t a man of greatest health, he had a stressful job, and came from genes predisposed to poor heart conditions and addiction. So, almost three years ago, when I received a call from my mother in Mississippi telling me that my dad had prostate cancer that had metastasized to his liver and bones and that, as the doctor said, would one day kill him, my fear of receiving that other dreaded phone call evaporated.
Since then, it has been replaced with a crueler reality. As many of you know, there are other things far worse than a sudden death. There a seasons of watching a once strong and vibrant man lose control of his dominant hand…of being unable to move without a walker…of consuming countless pills whose side effects are just as destructive as the medicine they are fighting…of the ultimate realization that this will be a long and excruciating death, of which I and the rest of my family will have to play a bigger part.
I write this reflection from the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, TX, where I I have just received a late-night call from my mom who is taking my dad to the emergency room because of pain in his chest and back. I stand outside a movie theater waiting to screen another film, phone in one hand and a beer in the other, caught between wanting to more fully participate in the celebration of the festival and hoping the latest call from my mom isn’t the next-to-last.
And, thinking about all this, I wonder if this isn’t something that Jesus’ disciples felt when they realized the fate their teacher outlined for himself. What had they imagined his (and their) end would be? What did they hope for, a long life of ministry and friendship, a political revolution, or something different? What ideas were destroyed when Jesus said, no, this is the way it’s going to be?
— J. Ryan Parker