The dying of believers in Jesus is significant because their faith gives way to glorious sight and the constant struggle against sin is ended and they can lay their armour down.
Significant as all this is, yet on this side of heaven, I had to search to find aspects of GB’s last day that are remarkable in any way — because nothing stood out as unusual, not even in the weeks and days leading up to his passing.
In fact, if anything, he and I felt that we had avoided the usual drastic decline in his health that would result every time I went out of Auckland. I had just returned after a 10-days trip to India, and he had weathered it well, considering.
Let me give you the context
ON SOME NIGHTS DURING THE SECOND HALF OF 2017, when he was still living with us in our home, we would find him sitting on his chair at the sink in the bathroom trying to work out how to go about brushing his teeth and completing his regular nighttime routines. He circumvented his memory issues by creating and extensively using lists, charts and forms. The battle between dementia and intelligence was interesting to watch.
That he was safe in Jesus and looking forward to heaven took away the edge of sadness for me. He always said that the best was yet to come. A million times — many many times anyway — in the months to come, he would quote, “Though our outer man is decaying and wasting away, yet our inner self is being renewed day after day” from 1Cor 4:16.
MY SHORT SIX-DAYS TRIP TO JAPAN IN NOVEMBER 2017 resulted in his first serious issues with vertigo, so much so that he had to be hospitalised on the day I returned. After a few weeks in the hospital, and having also been diagnosed with mild dementia, we moved him to the rest home. He had his special desk and his books around him.
He thrived, completing several complete readings of the Bible in record time. He continued to use the D.W. Whittle scheme, which he had been using for many years. However, he stopped reading all other books except the Bible, his book of Puritan prayers, and his English and Tamil hymnals.
I SUSPECTED THE CONNECTION BETWEEN MY ABSENCE AND HIS VERITGO, but this was proved beyond any doubt when the vertigo returned when we went to NZTCF camp in January this year and again when we went to the church camp in February. But GB remained skeptical about my theory that his vertigo and my absence were connected.
I visited him everyday and so the days passed quickly by. He now needed more help to follow the Bible-reading scheme. Initially I marked out the day’s readings for him on the scheme sheet. Then the scheme chart became altogether too confusing. So, he let go of the scheme chart and marked out his progress in a notebook.
Then one fine day, he said that he had decided to read only the New Testament because Jesus had done away with the old covenant. Of course, with years of debating and arguing various subjects with each other behind us, I had to point out to him that his logic was not quite right. I reminded him that because of the dementia, he would need to trust me about what was true and what was not. (I also told him that I had a brilliant brain. Well, I could not pass that up; he was the only one who would believe that. He did.) He acquiesced, and I said that at his age, it was OK to read just the New Testament, if only because the Gideon’s Large-print New Testament was easy on the eyes and felt light in the hands.
The vertigo was all but forgotten in the next three months, in which time he read the New Testament many times over from cover to cover, and we got to the month of June . . . and the Impact Conference in Hastings.
THE IMPACT OF THE IMPACT CONFERENCE HAS TO BE MENTIONED. Just before we left, remembering the vertigo again, I told him that I would be gone only three days. I even wrote it in his notebook, and he assured me that it would be OK. But he was wrong.
By the second day, he had forgotten that I would be back soon. The vertigo had returned, he was nauseous, and had stopped eating.
On my return, I found him on his bed in an awkward position, unable to move to re-position himself. He was staring fixedly ahead at the corner of the ceiling on his left. When I called to him, he was confused and in a daze, and he did not want to be distracted. He said that his time to go to the heavenly kingdom had come. He sounded even a bit annoyed that I had returned after being away for “three months,” as he put it.
I reasoned with him that he was probably not dying just yet and that if he began to eat properly again, he would regain his strength. He was not to decide the time of his death, his was to keep serving the Lord as always. And I declared to him that it was his God-given duty to eat well.
He was obedient, and he began to eat properly, although he had little interest in food. He also repeatedly mentioned that Lydia, whose name came back to him only as ‘Benny’s wife Lydia,’ wanted him to be alive till her son was born, because the baby-and-great-grandfather photo is an important record. One of the carers in the rest home, Carer A, often reminded him about ‘GB Junior’ who was soon to be born. I think they even discussed baby names.
Being weak, he found it difficult to get to his chair, and because of the dementia, he did not remember to ask the carers to help him to the chair either. As a result he hardly read in those days. The more time he spent lying down, the more disoriented he was. At least this was what I thought, and so I asked the carers to get him to sit at his desk after his meals for a little while, so that he had the calendar and other lists and charts before him to give him his bearings.
He was sometimes exasperated by the vividness of his dreams in which past issues were brought back to him afresh. For instance, he had a dream where he relived an experience that actually took place. His elder brother GCA, so proud of GB on his return from the United States in 1963, took him to the Lions Club in Chennai and asked him if he would be willing to stand up and share something about his experience. When GB said that he’d rather not, GCA did the speaking instead.
On the other hand, he was thrilled when he remembered hymns from the past. He always wrote them down and told me about them later. They were often the old Lutheran hymns in Tamil from his childhood.
FROM THE MOMENT THE 10-DAYS JULY TRIP TO INDIA WAS CONCEIVED, we knew that it was going to be something of a challenge. I told him about it weeks before, circling the days off on his Christian Missions and Charitable Trust calendar. He found the notion that his body would react to my absence with vertigo rather hard to believe. During the days leading up to our departure, I talked about it. In the beginning, when I asked him how long I was going to be away for, he would say things like “three months” or “six months.” By repeatedly correcting him and making him repeat “10 days,” he finally got it right.
I made 11 strips of paper and wrote a Bible verse in each and rolled them up with the date visible on the outside. These went in a bowl with instruction to the carers to give him one each day. On the day he read the last verse, I would be back.
And we left for India. Everyday, I called the rest home from wherever I was. The nurse who took my call would take the receiver personally to GB and we spoke. Very short calls. I would tell him where we were and then ask: “Has the vertigo come?” He would laugh and reply: “Not yet.”
Seven days into our journey, Lydia and Benny’s boy was born. We looked forward to seeing him soon.
On our last day in India, when we were on our way to the airport, I called GB and made my last phone call and said that we were finally on our way. As usual he said that the vertigo had not come yet.
IT WAS MORE THAN 24 HOURS LATER BEFORE I MANAGED TO GET TO HIM on 16th July. In that time, he had become a little ill and vomited once.
But when I went to him, he seemed happy enough. As it was already late and we were eager to see our new grandson for the first time, I stayed with GB only for a few minutes, promising to stay longer the next day. I thought that he would immediately begin getting better, simply because I had returned.
The next day, jetlagged, I woke up quite late and then got caught up with some unavoidable tasks. We had to get to the midweek prayer meeting in the evening, and so I called the rest home and asked them to convey to GB that I will come and see him after the prayer meeting. To visit GB after his bedtime was quite normal and happened often because I worked late hours. Looking back now, I am grateful that I did not squeeze that visit just before the prayer meeting.
HAD IT NOT BEEN MY LAST VISIT, I would not look back on it as anything remarkable. I can think of many other visits that were more hilarious or more profound in terms of the conversations. But this was remarkable simply by way of being my last visit.
When I reached the rest home, Carer A said that GB had not eaten anything all day but had had water. When I went into his room, he was in the same awkward position as he had been on my return from Hastings in June. Again, he was staring fixedly ahead at the corner of the ceiling on his left. But this time, he did not appear to be disoriented and he did not say that he was preparing to go to heaven as he had done on the earlier occasion. Maybe he did not want to bother arguing with brilliance.
I chided him, hopefully gently, for not eating. Assuming that he was not eating because he was not interested in food, I said that he had to eat well. His reply is interesting in retrospect. “Don’t assume that it is completely in my control. It may not be in my control.” He also seemed to be clearing his throat every now and then, in a way that I had never seen him do before.
When I said that he should eat his breakfast, he said he did not think he would have the strength to sit up and eat. I asked him if I could make him some warm watery oat porridge that he could drink. I thought that it might give him the needed strength to have his breakfast in the morning. He agreed and drank nearly a cup full.
I then showed him a video of Benny and Lydia singing to their newborn son. He wanted Carer A to also watch and she did.
But the most interesting thing about the evening was that he kept staring ahead at the corner of the ceiling, despite not being very disoriented. When I called him and asked him to look at me, he did, quite normally and then went back to keep vigil, staring at that spot.
I asked, “Why are you looking at the ceiling like that?” To this he replied, “I have a reason for looking there.” When pressed further, he said, “The reason is because. . . ” and his voice trailed off. When I asked him to look at me, he had no problem looking me in the face. But then he went back to looking at the ceiling. I would ask him why again, and he would again tell me that he had a reason and then stop short of telling me what the reason was. The stopping mid-sentence per se was not unusual with his dementia. And so this dialogue about his ceiling staring was repeated a few times, but I was none the wiser.
Telling him to take extra effort to eat his breakfast, I left him for the last time.
IT WAS AN AWKWARD AND PRECARIOUS MOMENT WHEN I GOT THE CALL. One of my chickens had escaped into the neighbour’s garden. I had tried to lure her into a large basket that I let down over the fence. When that contraption failed, I got on top of the step ladder again and bending over the fence was letting down a large sheet with its corners fastened to bungie cords, for what was going to be a very tricky procedure to outwit the Welsummer, when my friend handed me the ringing phone.
At the rest home, they wanted about 30 minutes or so to make GB presentable, and in the meantime, they told me what had transpired. I spoke with one Nurse L in particular and another Carer E who had both interacted with him that day.
In the morning, he had asked the Activities Coordinator M for breakfast, but did not want his usual weetbix. Instead he asked for oat porridge. I suspect that he remembered the oats drink that I had given him the night before. But the oats that he received now would have been the thicker porridge. . It wasn’t M’s duty to get him breakfast, but being a kind soul and having developed an affection for him, she went to the kitchen and made the oats for him. [As Activities Coordinator, she found that he played piano and had been wheeling him to the piano once every two days. She had even got him to participate in Arts and Crafts actvity.]
He refused the oats saying that it was too hot, so M left it aside to cool and carried on with her tasks. Carer E who later passed by his room noticed that his breakfast was untouched, came in and asked if she could mix some more milk in it and bring it back to him. He was willing, so she made him sit on his usual swivel chair near the bed and began to feed him the porridge. He offered to finish the porridge himself. So Carer E left him to it while she changed the sheets. From the corner of her eyes, she noticed that he put the spoon down and lifted the bowl to his lips and drank the porridge. After that she gave him some tea. GB told Carer E that all he wanted was to rest. She told him to be seated for a bit because he had just had his meal. She then left him seated on the chair while she took the dirty sheets to the laundry. After a short while, when she returned, she found him nicely asleep on the bed. She was not sure how he had got himself from the chair to the bed. Someone had to have helped him, but she was sure that no one else was available to do that. So that is a bit of a mystery.
Nurse L went to his room for something that morning and heard him say something that sounded like ‘lonely.’ So she asked him if he was lonely or depressed, and he replied, “I am not lonely. I am not depressed. How can I be lonely? Jesus is with me.”
A young friend of ours, who volunteers at the rest home went to say hello. GB had known her for about a decade. When she was really little, she looked like a doll, so he called her Bommai, which in Tamil means doll. But ever since she started volunteering in the home, he felt that he needed to call her by her actual name. It took some effort because he kept forgetting it, but in the end he succeeded. On that last day, when she came in, he saw her and told her not to come too close because he had a throat infection. I believe something had been going on in his throat even the previous day, may be some fluid collection.
At 12:30 p.m. he pressed the button and called for the nurse. He told Nurse L that he was not feeling well and would she please tell him what was wrong with him. She took his blood pressure and temperature, which were both normal.
At 1:00 p.m. both Nurse L and Carer E sat down to have their lunch. Shortly after that they were called to GB’s room. Carer E noted that it was 1:15 pm. It had been the Activities Coordinator M who noticed that GB had passed away, and she told me that although he had thrown up, he looked peaceful.
So as I said, nothing about his last days and hours stands out. But in reality, a fascinating event had taken place—Heaven welcomed a son home, a son who had meant business with God, one who had “violently” and purposefully taken ahold of Jesus.