Last year, beginning on the day after Thanksgiving, a series of events started that made it the worst possible week. On Thanksgiving Day, my sister pulled me aside and said, "You need to talk to Patrick. He's got some stuff going on, and it's really scary." Two days later, Patrick and I sat together at Big Apple Bagels on Garfield Road near his home in Clinton Township, Michigan. He talked about physical symptoms that had begun to surface a couple months prior. I had just spent a couple days with him during all of our family festivities, and hadn't noticed anything, although he did seem to be not quite as jovial. He had difficulty laughing, he explained, and could no longer pronounce certain words. He tried to say "Google" for me, but he couldn't say it. He pointed to his arm and showed me how the muscles were quivering non-stop. He had been searching online, looking for possible diagnoses, but it kept coming back as either ALS or brain tumor. If he had to choose between those two, he was hoping for a brain tumor. There were doctor visits and tests scheduled for the next week, so we agreed there was no reason to borrow trouble from the future.
A week later, on a Monday evening, my sister called to tell me the terrible news. The test results were 100% confirmed--Patrick had ALS. If he was average, the doctors said, he would live two to five years. Two days later I drove to Taylor University to tell Heather her Uncle was dying, and then on to Detroit to hang with Patrick and Dena for the weekend. That Sunday morning he would stand up in front of his church, where he had served as the Youth Pastor for twelve years, and tell them that his days were numbered. Scores of students sat that morning in the front rows of the church, hearing for the first time that their youth pastor had a terminal illness. I still remember the looks on their faces.
I remember that morning singing "Blessed Be The Name of the Lord" and not being able to sing the part that says, "He gives and takes away..." It was just too hard. I was standing by my sister, next to their kids, Paige (18) and Parker (17), and was still in denial that any of this could be happening.
For the past year I have gone to Detroit every few weeks to be with them and help where I could. We joined them in April when he preached his final sermon; we got our family together in northern Michigan in June; we've watched people jump in to build ramps, widen doorways, renovate their bathroom, add stair railings, provide wheelchairs and chair lifts and more. Scores of people jumped in with donations for the McGoldrick Family Fund, providing more than $35,000 to help with school bills and medical costs. It's been an amazing sight to behold.
I'm not sure about the rest of the members of my family, but I spent quite a bit of time in the stages of grief known as denial and anger. I really couldn't believe it was happening. I questioned why God would allow it. I still don't think he caused it (which is why I have a hard time with the song), but I know He is sovereign and could have stopped it. So for months, the question was, "Why?" Why will my sister not have a husband at such a young age? Why will Paige and Parker be without a dad in such an important time in their lives? And why is the disease progressing so much more quickly with Patrick than with others?
At some point, in the last few months, my focus has shifted. And I am overwhelmed with gratefulness. I have a front-row seat to watching a man praise God until his dying breath. He is a prisoner in his own wheelchair, yet does not curse God. He endures humiliating processes with the hospice nurse, yet he still smiles. He can't walk, scratch his nose, shoo a fly away, hold a pen or say a word. And yet he still praises God.
I'm away this week, so wrote a note to my kids on Monday that said...
I know you haven't been this close to someone dying before, and it is a tragic thing. But I want you to know how rare it is that someone dies like Uncle Patrick is dying. Many (most?) people have a difficult time living. Life can be overwhelming and it is tough to do it with integrity and love. But as hard as living is, very few people die well. Some day in the next few weeks, Uncle Patrick will fall asleep and wake up in heaven. And he will be able to do so with a smile on his face and with no regrets. He didn't live a sinless life, but he lived a life of integrity. And even in his dying he is doing so with authenticity and vulnerability, while acknowledging his complete reliance on Jesus.
As hard as this time is on all of you, I'm so glad we don't live a thousand miles away, and you are able to experience it up close. He will be missed greatly, but we will all look back on his last days marveling at what a man of God he was all the way until the end.
Life is fragile, and we never know when our next encounter with someone will be our last, so live a life with no regrets, giving your all to everyone who you hold close and dear.
Yes, I am so honored to be watching a man trust and praise God until his dying day. I can only pray that I will do the same.
You can follow the journey of Patrick McGoldrick on his blog.