“. . .though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. . .”
Only once in my life have I walked through the valley of the shadow, and that was a few years ago, when I sat for several days at the bedside of my father who was dying. I knew it, even though the doctors and nurses wouldn’t say it and my family couldn’t believe it—after all, what had brought him to the hospital was only searing back pain.
But I knew he wasn’t going to step out of that bed on his own again because in the time that I spent with him, he became less and less communicative, less and less there. We never had a final talk. We never spoke in that blissful way that most of us fantasize might occur in the final moments we share with those we love.
I helped him when he needed to drink, when he needed to urinate, when he felt deep pain; but honestly I don’t think he knew I was there—or who was there. The intensity of the pain and the effort his body was mounting simply to stay alive drew all of his strength and will and consciousness.
Only those who’ve been there will understand what I mean when I say that those days were among the best days of my life. Maybe things weren’t said that could or should have been; and, sure, if I could rewrite the scene, I would. But I don’t remember another time in our lives together when I simply sat beside him, the man who had given me life itself—and always loved me, even when I didn’t deserve it.
A man came in one afternoon, a man from my father’s church. I knew him from my childhood, of course, but he wouldn’t have been the man I thought the church might send. He was my father’s district elder, and it was his job, I know, to visit him. But he was there. When he stopped by, I told him my father likely wouldn’t know he was there.
But that didn’t stop him. This burly guy I remember as a truck driver walked up to the bedside, took my father’s hand, and spoke to him as if my father understood every last word, even tried to engage him in conversation that didn’t have a chance of starting. And when he realized that, this burly angel of mercy simply kept talking himself, told my father that throughout his own life he’d always looked up to Dad, told him how as far as he was concerned, my father was one of those men he’d call truly Godly, how much he’d meant to him, a model of a Christian.
A big man with his hair square as a GI, a guy I had some trouble thinking of as an elder, a man I don’t know that I’d ever spoken to before—that man looked into my father’s agonized face, held my father’s hand, and told him in no uncertain terms that as far as he was concerned, my father had modeled Jesus Christ in Oostburg, Wisconsin.
And then he backed away from my father’s bed, looked at me, shook my hand, and left, wiping tears from his eyes.
I honestly don’t know whether any of that got into my father’s mind, whether he heard those words or picked up a hint of the warmth of the big hand that held his. My guess is that he didn’t, but I don’t know. The nurses told me they’d often been surprised by what people in my father’s condition did hear.
But I know I heard it—every single word of that truck driver’s testimony, and I reminded of it now when I read this verse of this beloved psalm: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil for thou art with me.”
What I know is that that day, he sent my father and me a truck driver.