My Brother’s Death Is Not the End of the Story

And why that changes how I view his death

My brother died last Sunday. He had suffered greatly, fought hard, but finally lost his physical battle. Like my oldest sister, Scott died at age 60 from a life ravaged by the trappings of this world. But in the end, much like the criminal crucified beside Jesus, he expressed his faith in Christ and is with Him today in paradise.

I am thankful.

“Very much so,” to borrow Scott’s phrasing, which I heard him say often enough during his hospital stay to consider it his own.

“Praise God!” I said when my niece Liz called to tell me he had passed away moments before.

I gave God praise, not because I was glad Scott had died but because his suffering had ended. For all eternity. I had lost a brother on Earth but gained one in Heaven.

Scott had been hospitalized since the beginning of January. Excruciating pain and an open wound where he had had surgery for a broken neck four years ago drove him to call 911. It was a call that temporarily saved his life, because, in addition to his pain in the neck, he was malnourished, bleeding internally, and had a collapsed lung.He is my brother still…I looked up to my brother until he started looking up to me. He was the middle of five children; I was the youngest. He…saradagen.com

Any one of those things could have killed him at any moment, but only we who loved him and those who cared for him seemed to understand that. He believed not only would he survive but that he also would emerge a better version of himself: “Scott 2.0,” he predicted.

Well aware of the risks Scott faced, we treated our time with him as if each visit or phone call or text message were our last. We left nothing unsaid. We wanted his best but expected the worst, and so we loved him — very much so.

For two months, doctors addressed Scott’s various issues. It was a roller-coaster ride that traveled through four hospitals, one acute care rehab, and dozens of hearts before the ride ended with multiple Code Blues and, sadly, death.

Though those months of medical hell didn’t result in physical healing for my brother, they were months of time, precious time, that, ultimately, were the difference between life and death. Eternally.

Once upon a time, Scott…

My brother was the third (and middle) child in the family. He was handsome and full of life. He loved the great outdoors and sports and had loads of talent, athletic ability, and smarts, all the tools he needed to make his life count.

The whole family: Jack, front row at left, Trish, Sara, Scott; John, back row at left, Cyndi, and Barbara
The whole family: Jack, front row at left, Trish, Sara, Scott; John, back row at left, Cyndi, and Barbara (from the family scrapbook)

He married fairly young, and he and his wife Theresa birthed three children in quick succession. When he enlisted in the Navy, he served on nuclear submarines and was stationed elsewhere.

Two boys wearing baseball caps. One has toothpicks sticking out of his big grin. The other is sporting his father's submarine squadron cap.
Justin and Jacob, Scott’s two sons. (Photo from the family scrapbook)
A little girl with blond hair, missing a front tooth, and wearing a Nebraska Cornhuskers baseball cap too big for her
Liz, Scott’s daughter. (Photo from the family scrapbook)

Once he and his family were back in the town where we were raised, I went to college and began my own life three hours from him. Though I went home for holidays and various family gatherings, we didn’t have much in the way of quality time together.

Scott as an adult looking healthy and spunky
I always thought my brother had “Robert Redford” good looks. Other than the “red eye” caused by my camera’s flash, this picture captures his spunky, fun attitude, as well as his healthy good looks. (Photo: Sara Dagen)

Sadly, the most time we spent “together,” often only by text or phone calls, was during the past four years while Scott struggled with health issues.

Time is a gift from God

At the beginning of his roller-coaster ride, Scott was bounced from one hospital to another. The day I learned he was coming to me, I joyously celebrated with colleagues at my work.

I was excited that I didn’t have to make the drive to visit him. But mostly I was excited because the hospital here is one of the best. People travel from all over to get the expert care offered.

“If they can’t fix him, no one can!” I exclaimed in my joy. I interpreted his move as a gift of God, nothing less.

For my brother, I thought it would mean healing.

For me, it meant I could spend time with him and, for me and him, make sure he clearly heard the Gospel and had the opportunity to trust Christ as his Savior.

I interpreted correctly. Mostly.

The hospital was close enough to my workplace that I could walk there each day for an extended lunch break. It was the most time I’d spent with my brother since I had become an adult. (I captured that story in a blog post in which I shot some selfies of us together.)

Each day as I walked to visit him, I prayed I would have an opportunity to ask Scott about his faith in Christ. He’d been raised in the same household of faith as I, and he had certainly heard with his ears that Jesus is Lord.

But had it penetrated his heart? I didn’t want my brother to miss heaven by 15 inches.

My brother wasn’t exactly a churchgoer, and he had no problem mentioning Jesus and horoscopes as equals in the same sentence when I asked about his faith. I was concerned. As my pastor says, we are saved “by grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone,” and I worried that my brother had an “and one” faith.

“Just Jesus,” I told him one day. “Not horoscopes or anything else. All you need is Jesus.”

At his request, I brought him a Bible and a devotional book (and M&Ms, which is another story). Each time he faced a scary procedure, I held his hand and prayed with him. He seemed calmer and more confident when I did.

Nearly three weeks after he arrived, in much better health than when he arrived, certainly, but not yet completely “fixed,” his case manager transported Scott to an acute care center just miles from his home but nearly 200 miles from my home.

Despite his improved appearance, I feared that my last visit would be the last time I saw my brother.

Scott, the last day I saw him. He was sleeping, still somewhat sedated after having a feeding tube surgically inserted. He had trimmed his beard, shampooed his hair, and, for fun, he had wrapped some tape around the nose piece of his glasses. (Photo by Sara Dagen)

Time healed a relationship

Once he was back in his hometown, Scott’s youngest child joined the roller-coaster ride as his daily visitor. She had driven the three hours to visit him for a few days when he was near me, and she’d been actively involved in his care all along, but mostly by phone. She said her visits “were strictly related to his medical need of her.”

My amazing niece Liz had overcome many odds to find her own happiness and stability, and as my brother often threatened that happiness and stability, Liz was wise enough to keep her distance.

But when his health declined, she rose to the occasion. Four years ago, she likely saved his life by getting him to a doctor when he had broken his neck. (He didn’t know he’d broken it and was in danger of paralysis with every shuffling step he took.) Two months ago, Liz did the same.

“I’m here as his medical advocate,” she had told me, “nothing more. If he can’t make decisions, I will make sure he gets the care he needs.”

She did.

When I saw Liz interact with her dad at the hospital, I sensed the tension between them. She seemed to notice the worst in him; he seemed to know she did. She had no problem telling him, for example, that he was being arrogant. Or to stop complaining because he did this to himself.

(He had, truly. He had smoked since age 10, drank, did drugs on occasion, and, clearly, didn’t eat enough, although part of that was due to the physical aftermath of four neck surgeries in 2016.)

But shortly after Scott was moved to the acute care rehab near my niece, he started to go downhill, and that was when I noticed a change in Liz. She had been to see Scott and noted that the nurse and facility weren’t exactly springing into action to give him the care he needed.

Instead of finding fault with her father, she had compassion for him. Her blossoming love helped her train her eyes on what was lacking in his care. When a respiratory therapist suggested Scott might be whining not because of need but because he wanted more attention, Liz made it clear — very much so — that her father did not behave that way and, indeed, needed help.

She complained to the charge nurse. She threatened to write a formal complaint.

All of this she conveyed to me in phone calls and texts. My husband, who had served as a physical therapist in skilled nursing facilities, reminded her that “it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease,” and I offered to intercede if she needed me.

She didn’t. She made herself as present at the facility as her job and family allowed. She asked questions, ran hallways for help when some mucus plugged Scott’s airways and he struggled to breathe, pointed to lacks in his cleanliness, and indicated when she saw things that were just “not cool.”

One day, my brother’s “medical advocate … nothing more” daughter, sent me a text saying she’d had a rough night with lots of emotions and some tears. She said she was hoping and praying that he would pull through.

He developed pneumonia, which to me seemed the death knell for Scott. While Liz visited him during the afternoon that day, she brushed his teeth and washed his hair, got him into a chair for a few minutes, and then got him to bed, where she shot a selfie.

Liz’s selfie with Scott, February 19. (Photo by Liz Hendrickson)

When I thanked her for taking such good care of him, she responded, “I’m glad I’m here to do it.”

The next morning, he hadn’t responded to any of my texts, so I was glad to hear from Liz that she had gotten a “good morning” text from him, though she hadn’t gotten a response to her reply. She told me she was headed to the facility and would let me know how he was doing.

She arrived just as the staff was saving his life. Scott had coded while his nurse was by his side, and so the staff was able to get his heart beating and him intubated and supplied with oxygen quickly.

When Liz visited the next few days, he was intubated and sedated, although he did usually manage to awaken when Liz was there.

“I was about to leave and I told him I loved,” Liz told me one evening after her visit. “He was dozing and he didn’t say it back, so I didn’t leave. I held his hand and spoke to him, and when he opened his eyes, I told him again that I love him, and he said it back.

“I didn’t want to leave without us saying that to each other.”

From that point on, Liz was the caring daughter (while remaining his medical advocate), and I knew that even if God didn’t heal Scott physically, he had healed the relationship between Scott and Liz.

Liz took a selfie in the parking lot of the hospital prior to going to see her father in ICU. Did I mention how much I love this girl?! (Photo by Liz Hendrickson)

Because I’m writing about her father, I always tell Liz the main topic and ask if it’s OK to write. I told her I wanted to mention the healing I saw in her and Scott.

“It seemed to me that you changed from merely doing your duty and being available in an emergency to forgiving and loving your dad,” I had sent via text. “Am I right? Is it OK to mention that if so?”

“Yes, you are very right!” Liz had responded.

“Thank you! Can you tell me what changed your attitude?”

“I think it changed for me because I knew I had to be there for him,” she had responded in a lengthy, thoughtful text.

“I cared for him very much, I would check up on his daily life, almost every day, without him knowing I was doing so. I was angry with him for his poor choices in life, but I loved him because he was my dad.

“I couldn’t see my dad, someone I love, go through this medical hell alone, even though I knew he put himself into this position. I feel in my heart that I did what I needed to do to feel at peace with our relationship.

“I have no regrets, and I’m very thankful for the time we had together leading up to the end of his time on earth.”

Despite being sedated while intubated, Scott was “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” often awake and writing his requests or responses in a conversation to his many visitors. Liz told me one time as his nurse was leaving the room, Scott wrote “I love you” on the paper and handed it to Liz. She responded, “Aww! Dad, I love you too!” He then pointed to the nurse, indicating the sentiment was meant for her. Liz thought it was hilarious! (Photo by Liz Hendrickson)

My brother had a regular parade of visitors, which included my oldest brother and his family, my deceased sister’s husband and children, as well as some friends and a pastor. Because I couldn’t be there, I was so thankful he wasn’t at a loss for company. Although I won’t go into detail, I believe God orchestrated some healing in each one of us as we rode Scott’s roller-coaster, praying for the best, fearing the worst.

I know my days with him — even if just sending a text — made me fonder of him, very much so.

What happened just in time

Last Sunday morning before church, I sent my niece a text to let her know that while I was at church, I’d keep my phone close. She only had to text me, and I’d leave the service to call her back.

We both knew it might be the day my brother died.

A sermon about my brother?

I wept through worship — not grief, particularly, though I was still concerned for my brother’s “and one” faith, as I termed his seemingly equal belief in Jesus and horoscopes and other skewed ideas.

At this time, my brother was unconscious, having coded twice a couple of days prior, going long enough without oxygen that we knew it wasn’t likely he would survive.

Ironically, the last conversation I had had with my brother was among the most optimistic.

“Well, I think I’m going to live,” he had said then. “Praise Jesus!”

We had chatted only a few minutes longer, as he said he had “zero stamina.” I hung up the phone hopeful, not knowing we would never talk again.

So as I listened to the sermon last Sunday, my mind was on my brother; the pastor’s sermon seemed to be about my brother, too. Greenhouse Church Pastor Mike Patz based his sermon on Luke 23:38–43:

38 There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” 
39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 
40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 
41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 
42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 
43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Luke 23

My pastor pointed to other Gospel accounts that indicated both criminals had blasphemed Jesus. Matthew 27:44, for instance, said both blasphemed Jesus, along with people passing by the crosses. “Blasphemed” is English for the original Greek terms “blax” meaning sluggish or slow and “pheme” meaning reputation or fame. Those who blasphemed were slow in recognizing who someone is.

One blasphemer crucified beside Jesus never recognized who Jesus was. But the other one was just slow, and once he recognized that Jesus was who he said he was, he believed.

“What happened between that passage in Matthew 27 and Luke 23:40?” my pastor asked.

“Forgive them for they know not what they do.” (He had preached on Jesus’s words the previous Sunday.)

As my pastor suggested that the criminal who had earlier blasphemed Jesus had likely grown up in a household that believed Christ was the Messiah. Just like Scott.

The criminal had heard the Gospel but never responded with his heart. Just like my brother. However, when he saw Jesus ask his Father to forgive those who crucified him, the criminal believed with his heart — expressed by the simple “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Pastor Mike suggested that many seeds had been sown in that man’s life — making it possible for him to make the switch from unbelief to belief in minutes. He also said that Jesus knows how to save people at the last minute.

“Keep sowing seeds,” he said. “Do not give up on anybody.”

After church, my daughter and I marveled at how the sermon seemed like a picture of my brother. I wanted to believe the seeds so many people had planted had done the work in his heart. I wanted to know I could see my brother in heaven.

I explained my thoughts of Scott’s “and one” faith to my son-in-law. I did think Scott’s heart was in the right place; I just wasn’t sure he really understood.

“His understanding of theology doesn’t matter,” Jim told me. “Jesus knows his heart.”

True.

It was my brother’s story too

I spent the afternoon waiting. Waiting for the verdict on a brain scan that would indicate if any quality of life was possible. It wasn’t. Waiting for Scott to be taken from life support. Would he live for minutes or hours or days breathing on his own?

While I was waiting, my sister-in-law sent me a text.

“Scott had a good visit with our associate pastor,” Dixie said. “Scott was coherent. Charlie was short, blunt, and sweet. Scott prayed with Charlie and said he believed.

“I am thankful,” she concluded. “We trust the rest to our God.”

“Thank you!” I said in response, so relieved, exceedingly happy. (I shared some details of my visits with Scott and my concern for his salvation.)

“I so wanted to know if Scott truly believed, and I am beyond thankful to know he prayed with your pastor. I told you what he said on the phone the last time I spoke with him. ‘I think I’m going to live. Praise Jesus!’

“Now he can truly live,” I concluded. “Praise Jesus.”

A timely takeaway for us

The criminal on the cross didn’t pray a formal sinner’s prayer when he came to faith in Christ. But look at what he did say:

“Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Luke 23:40b-42

He acknowledged his sin and that his sin came with a death penalty. He understood that Jesus had done nothing wrong and yet paid a death penalty. He made the connection between God the Father and Jesus the Son, and he recognized Jesus as king. He asked Jesus to remember him.

It was enough. Jesus responded:

43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Luke 23:43

My pastor’s takeaways for that sermon were two points:

  1. Keep sowing seeds — and do not give up on anybody.
  2. Turn to Jesus if you haven’t already.

Let me add one more thought. In my text thread with Dixie, when I was so overwhelmed by God’s amazing grace in not only saving my brother but also in letting me know, I texted, “God is good!”

“And He loves us!” she replied.

“So much!”

I should have used Scott’s phrasing: “very much so.”

I hope you know that God loves you and yours. Turn to Jesus if you haven’t — and let someone know you have. If you know Him, keep sowing seeds and don’t give up on anyone. Jesus can save someone at the last moment.

It’s time

I hated that my brother suffered so many medical issues, so many procedures — such a roller coaster ride! — only to die anyway. But I believe God had a purpose in giving him time. He accomplished his purpose, waiting until my brother repented, and gave Scott a life story that will never end.

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

2 Peter 3:9


Originally posted at https://medium.com/@sarahas5/my-brothers-death-is-not-the-end-of-the-story-b005d6295fc8 on March 17, 2020.

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