My post today originates from thoughts about Dad when he was dying of cancer. Dad was an inveterate smoker. None of us in the family liked him doing it, and one of my pet tricks was to locate his stash of cigarettes and discard them in the overgrown coconut plantation that grew some 12 or more feet below our backyard. Dad knew who the culprit was, of course, and I never failed to receive the biting end of his tongue whenever he discovered his precious cartons of cigarettes missing from the boot of the family car.
I am sure Dad knew that smoking was bad for him. At that time, no one knew about passive smoking. However, we all knew that it was bad for the smoker, who could develop lung cancer and die from it. Thankfully, Mum was adamant that Dad should not smoke in the house nor in her presence. This helped to cut down some of Dad’s smoking, although he would still sneak cigarettes into the toilet to smoke whenever he could. Otherwise, he smoked outdoors. Oddly enough, he never smoked in the car because the latter was his pride, joy, and second wife!
Inevitably, Dad developed cancer. Ironically, the lung cancer which he was diagnosed with was not of a type consistent with a smoker. Unfortunately, despite Dad’s cancer, he found it almost next to impossible to quit the weed. I remember taking leave from university to look after him. He managed to stave off his nicotine cravings for a little while but was soon puffing away again whenever he thought no one was looking.
So why have I entitled my post ‘When I am weak, then I am strong’? Because Dad, despite his severe illness, displayed a dignity of self that showed his strength of character in the midst of great distress. Whilst I prayed for his healing, I am not sure that he himself believed he would be healed. Indeed, his actions were sometimes those of a doomed man awaiting the gallows. Yet Dad never became morose or grumbled about his illness. He smiled and laughed with the rest of us and lived life to the full where possible.
Those few months were an eye-opener for me as I took care of Dad. I saw him deteriorate from a happy and cheerful man, looking chipper and in form, to a man impatient with himself as he endeavoured to keep up with life. Still, Dad would try to keep strong for us all whenever he could. The problem was that Dad’s cancer was spreading. A tumour had now formed on his brain and this was having an effect on his moods and abilities. The man who could hand build a kitchen could no longer do up his shirt buttons and he was cross with himself for being unable to do so. The man who could teach secondary school maths could no longer drive, and Dad now had to see his daughter driving his beloved car whilst he sat next to her, a more vocal passenger seat driver than you would ever care to meet!
But Dad tried to remain strong. Even when he lost much of his mobility and his normally healthy appetite; even when he lost weight and the mischievous light in his eye; even when he endured the indignities of nursing care where he would have preferred to do everything for himself, he tried to keep cheerful for his family’s sake. I would go out and buy food to tempt Dad to eat – to maintain his strength and to give him something nice to look forward too. (Dad did always enjoy his food.) Dad would try his best to eat as I spoon-fed him, possibly just to please me – I do not know.
Dad and I did not always enjoy the calmest of relationships, but looking after Dad as his days drew to a close enabled me to see the strength that was in him. It is a strength not made of muscle or mind, but a strength of spirit. He would keep his dignity as long as he could. When I last saw Dad alive, he was in his hospital bed, immoveable and (almost) unknowing of the outside world. But Dad had the last word. He was awaiting my sister’s results to say that she had achieved her BA (Hons.). When it was whispered in his ear that she had indeed achieved the desired results, he waited until no one was in the room . . . and then he expired. Even to the end, Dad would keep his dignity.
‘When I am weak, then I am strong.’ This is actually a verse from the Bible (2 Corinthians 12:10) where Paul writes about his troubles, but overturns their effect upon him by delighting in God’s grace, the grace which had kept his spirit strong in the midst of his difficulties. So too for my Dad: his weakness of body, and latterly his deterioration of mind due to the cancerous tumour on his brain, totally incapacitated him. Nevertheless, when now I think back, I ask whether it was God’s grace that kept his spirit strong?