The phone call was like none I had ever received. It was from a son of the gentleman for whom I did elder care. I supposed it to be a routine call. Not so. Dale got right to the point.
“Dave [Dale’s brother] and I have something we want you to do, even if it means getting fired,” he said.
My brain whirred as I wondered where he was going with this. “We want you to find out where Dad stands with God.”
I knew what Dale meant, and it sounded like an easy task. Again, not so. Anytime I mentioned God or hinted of spiritual things during the five years I’d worked for Charlie, he either totally ignored me or immediately changed the subject.
Charlie had grown up a Christian. He’d attended church with his wife and twin sons. Now active in their own churches, Dave and Dale had also experienced their dad’s aloofness and disregard at any mention of God. Because of Charlie’s health and age, the sons were concerned about their dad’s salvation and had chosen me to check it out—job or no job.
Charlie lived in his own home and needed some assistance from me to continue doing so. We spent afternoons together laughing and talking. On sunny days we often visited the cemetery where his beloved wife was buried.
I have fond memories of sitting on the ground beside her grave while Charlie, perched on the seat of his wheeled walker, told family stories.
We shopped together, bought flowers for the yard, and talked about all the people we would help if we were rich. I took him to doctor’s appointments and to visit friends. We enjoyed each other’s company. Many of our ideas paralleled, except one. He wouldn’t talk to me about God no matter what angle I tried.
A few days after he called, I told Dale I was uncomfortable with his request. I didn’t want to do anything to ruin my relationship with Charlie. I assured Dale that I would encourage his dad and do all I could to witness to him, but to please give me and the Holy Spirit more time.
Somehow Charlie had to become aware of his need of God. I increased my prayers on his behalf, pleading with God to let me be the “pleasing aroma of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:15) for Him. (Nothing was ever mentioned about being fired; I just prayed desperately for help.)
“You’re as spineless as the rest of us.” We both laughed.
The next week Dave visited his dad. On his way out the door, he whispered with a teasing grin, “You’re as spineless as the rest of us.” We both laughed, knowing that neither Dale, Dave, nor I had been successful in talking to Charlie about God.
“Let’s give it time,” I said. Dave agreed. If I could only communicate to Charlie that God has something vastly better to offer him than he was seeking for himself, I would have felt that progress was being made.
Time passed. In July, Charlie celebrated his ninety-fifth birthday with a big backyard party. His goal was to reach 100, and I determined to help him do so. But his eyesight was failing, and his steps were becoming slower.
One fall day after a visit with Charlie, Dale motioned for me to follow him outside. He told me that he had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had approximately six months to live. He had not yet told his dad, but planned to do so soon.
I walked into Charlie’s house a couple days later to find him almost in tears. “Sit down,” he motioned to the chair. “I have some very bad news.” His emotions poured out as he talked about Dale. I prayed inwardly for them both.
When I left that day, I patted Charlie’s arm and told him I would be praying for Dale. He said nothing.
Weeks passed. Dale went through all the necessary treatments for his disease, visiting his dad whenever he was strong enough. I was shocked one afternoon when Charlie asked if I would pray with him about Dale. I sat down in front of his big chair and took his gnarled hands in mine. It was the only time I was glad Charlie was blind, because by the time I finished praying, tears were streaming down my face, more because of Charlie’s softened heart than Dale’s condition. The Holy Spirit was truly making Himself known.
Charlie told me he prayed for Dale every day. This surprised me. Several weeks later he said, with irritation: “I don’t know why God isn’t answering my prayers about Dale!” I explained that we don’t always understand God’s ways. He remained silent.
Charlie had to go to the hospital for several days, then he went to a nursing home for recovery. I visited him almost daily. It seemed doubtful that he would ever be able to return home. After he asked me to pray with him about Dale, I felt free to ask Charlie if we could pray together. He always nodded a “please” in reply. Whatever animosity Charlie harbored toward spiritual things was definitely fading.
More quickly than even the doctor expected, Charlie took a turn for the worse. Renal failure set in. We all knew it was just a matter of time.
I spent hours at Charlie’s bedside, just holding his hand as he moved in and out of naps. Hospice care was arranged, and Charlie realized that his time was short. We talked easily about heaven. When we read Scriptures about the new earth, Charlie whispered, “Unbelievable.” It was a special moment the first time his family and I gathered around his bedside in prayer. Our hearts united in thanks for Charlie’s openness toward our God.
One evening Dale and I visited quietly at Charlie’s bedside as he slept. I told Dale that I felt his dad’s obvious turning toward God had come as a result of Dale’s illness. He agreed.
“You know,” he said, nine months after his diagnosis, “I never prayed that I would be healed. Other people did. I figured the doctors were smart, and they knew how long I had. I only prayed that I would be acceptable to God, no matter what.”
Charlie breathed his last a few days later. His on-and-off life with God lasted 96 years. All indications point to the fact that the Holy Spirit did His work of restoring a broken relationship in spite of the “spineless” tools He had to work with.
In their book In His Image, Paul Brand and Philip Yancey write that the Holy Spirit serves as the go-between God, who unites people to each other and to Him.
Marybeth Gessele lives in Gaston, Oregon.