I flew to Oregon after church services on Sunday for a family emergency. My World War II vet dad, Bill Pengra, had fallen at his own 91st birthday party and broken his neck in two places and fractured his back as well. Now, my dad has always been much like my own Prince Philip — active and vibrant and always seeming at least ten years younger than his age. As well, he has been the constant caregiver for my mom Donna who has suffered from all kinds of maladies for most of their 67 years of married life. So this fall was a big deal and it signaled a new season in all our lives.
I’m really grateful that my siblings, older brother Bob and younger brother Steve and my sissy Joanie all live close to Dad, and all stepped up to assist in their “specialized” ways. Bob took the responsibility of caring for my mom. Steve, the paramedic firefighter was there to make sure Dad got the best medical care possible. Sissy Joanie brought her compassionate presence to be with Dad in all his hard moments of suffering and organized his many medical appointments.
And it was time for me to join the family and be part of the team.
No one wanted or could have guessed that such a thing would happen to my dad. But at 91, after only a minor hernia repair operation years ago, he was in the hospital and now in a rehab center! He does not require surgery, praise the Lord, but does have to wear an awful, rigid brace from neck and back of head to his waist 24 hours a day to support his neck and promote healing. Daddy says the lower part of the brace from neck to waist feels like the “flak jacket” he wore as a bomber pilot during the war. (A flak jacket is a form of body armor designed to provide protection from case fragments from high explosive weaponry.) The neck part of the brace completely fixes his head in one position, preventing any movement, even to the point of not allowing his mouth to open much for smiling or easy eating! He’ll wear this brace for many weeks and then other, more manageable braces for months.
I was surprised at the depth of emotion I experienced in seeing my dad suffer in this way. Restricted to only looking straight ahead, needing a wheelchair, help with eating, not able to shower or manage his own bathroom needs. He went from being strong and able to frail and needy in just one moment, one slip of the foot. The accident rendered him unable to care for or even live with his beloved wife “Donnie” for perhaps months to come. It means his home right now is a rehabilitation center with strange surroundings and a disorienting schedule of treatment, rest, treatment, rest and then those meals that don’t meet his standards and are hard to get into his mouth because of his neck restriction.
The Bible says that “All things work together for good to those who love the Lord …” (Romans 8:28) But what’s the good in this tragedy, this suffering?
Well, Monday was a day that brought irreplaceable beauty. Nothing could have taken the place of walking into my daddy’s room with my sissy, her daughter Maleea and Maleea’s little blue-eyed 4-month old Benjamin. To see my dad weep at the sight of Maleea and that little boy, the first of the fourth generation, well … I’ll keep that memory with me forever. A moment of irreplaceable beauty.
And I’ll keep also the memory of my pulling out of my purse Daddy’s old, worn book of Christian hymns and choruses which he, the worship leader of our little Baptist church from years ago, gave to me when I became a worship leader. We sang hymn after hymn and chorus after chorus. At the last strain of Blessed Assurance, “This is my story. This is my song, praising my Savior all the day long. This is my story. This is my song, praising my Savior all the day long,” Daddy began to weep, took my hand, lifted it to his lips and kissed it. A moment of irreplaceable beauty.
And I’ll keep with me forever the memory of Daddy with his four children — his two sons and his two daughters — gathered around his wheelchair, laying hands on his sweet head and shoulders and praying for his peace and for his recovery. I’ll remember forever asking Daddy to pray with me a prayer of giving his dear wife “Donnie” to the care of Jesus and his children while he was recovering. I’ll never forget the tears streaming down his face and his voice, broken and halting as he said after me, “Jesus, I believe you love my Donnie more than I do. I choose to trust You to care for her while I cannot.” A moment of irreplaceable beauty.
All that would have been enough … for all of us … but God gave us more. He gave us a moment when after my brothers had lifted him carefully to lay on his bed in his little room in the rehab center, Sissy Joanie caught him lifting his finger, pointing to each child and saying quietly, “One … two … three … four.” “Yes, Daddy,” Joanie said, “all four of your children are right here with you.” His eyes again filled with tears and so did Joanie’s and so did mine when I heard the story of this moment of irreplaceable beauty.
You see, my dad has always been the caregiver, the one who was strong and capable and who cared for my mother through all her physical and mental ups and downs. He prepared and served her meals. He rubbed her neck. He gave her the medication prescribed for her. He washed her, touched her, cared for her every need. And now we have a chance to do that for Daddy. For perhaps the first time in his life, he is on the receiving end of care and love and nurture. Jesus has put Daddy at center stage and we are finding even this tragedy, this suffering is bringing many moments of irreplaceable beauty.
I wouldn’t have missed this for anything. And I suspect my World War II vet … my 91-year old Daddy would say the same.
After more than 25 years in parish ministry, Rev. Cathie retired in early 2018 to pursue a quieter life with her husband Philip in the mountains of Central Oregon. Although no longer a leader in congregational life, she continues to follow her calling and passion to minister to those who suffer, especially those with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.