By Dawn Waters Baker
Three weeks into a month-long residency at Gettysburg National Military Park, I received the news that my dad had suffered a stroke. I flew out of Baltimore that evening and arrived at my parents’ house in Dallas around midnight. Not able to fly home with me, my husband and daughters had to make the long drive back from Pennsylvania on their own. Early the morning after I arrived, my sister sent word that it was time to gather at the hospital. Daddy’s kidneys had shut down and the doctors informed us that there was nothing left for them to do. My sister, mom, and I were all there with him—present in those thick and painful moments. But even there I could feel love. We were given people to stand with us during those final moments. Though he couldn’t talk and wasn’t conscious, we each felt deep love for and from dad. Once we decided to not prolong his life on the machines, it was as if Dad agreed with us. His breathing became shallow and his blood pressure got lower and lower. Though he was still tethered to that weary body—one that had suffered the intense pain of cluster headaches for 20 years—it seemed as if Dad was ready to go. I believe the Lord was opening the door, and Dad was passing through it.
After the nurse returned and removed his tubes, he looked so peaceful and handsome. It took only about two minutes for him to stop breathing—it happened so fast—and then I knew I was looking at just a body, not my dad but very much my dad at the same time. His soft hands and his feet. The way he trimmed his beard so carefully and neatly. This was the casing I had loved so long, but the energy and spirit were no longer with us. And there was no way to call him back through the door.
As I’ve been filing through all the photos I took while I was in Gettysburg, along with my accompanying painting studies, I feel as if God has been showing me that He was readying me for something difficult. I had been looking at a landscape filled with death and pain, and yet every time I ventured outdoors I found beauty and life. I even asked the Lord, “Really? Am I seeing this right?” I wrote in my journal: “These families lived their lives sowing and reaping and waiting and one day there was fire and blood and the farms became more than homes—hospitals, sniper hide-outs, and places to steal food to eat. They became drenched in all of it—the mess of men and animals crashing together in a great battle, and the land held it like the hand of God. It is a gift to stand in the same landscape and breathe the air, feel the rain or sun cycle of the day, and be human in a place of such tension. But there is a peace here too. Like the sunrise or sunset. The beauty opens the window to the reality of this space. Only beauty can do that because it holds it here in kindness so we can bear it, such sorrow and death.”
Now I am reading these words from the other side of the pain of my dad’s passing, not just viewing it from the standpoint of history or trying to conjure the sentiments that the farmers and townspeople might have felt. I had lost someone dear to me.
I could only go to Dad’s grave in the first few weeks and sit with the newly tilled earth and peer through the tree branches that canopied his grave like wooden wings. I allowed myself to take in the beauty even as I cried from a deep place that felt raw and wounded. Beauty and death both pulled me, and I sat between them in the shadow.
We exist in the tension of the “now” and the “not yet.” As Christians, we live with the eternal hope of our real home, our heavenly one prepared by Christ Himself. Yet we also live in the now: this place of shootings, racism, greed, violence, and death. They tumble together even as we continue to love, hope, dream, and create. We live in peace and pain and the tension of both.
As a painter, I know that opposite colors on the wheel help create tension in a painting. This tension makes the colors “pop” out at the viewer when they are placed together. Traditional Christmas colors are an example of these kinds of opposite colors, yet red and green become a neutral when mixed together—blending into a beautiful cool grey. There seems to be something spiritual to that rule of paint.
As I approach the holidays with mixed dread and delight, in some ways I wish I could just go to bed in November and wake up in January. I don’t want to go through these holidays without Dad. Yet I also find myself hearing the minor keys of the Christmas carols that have become so familiar to me I almost hear past them. For the first time, I sense how the world was laying in sadness and mourning. I see in a new way the struggle of Mary and Joseph. I sense their suffering. I think about Jesus in a cold stable surrounded by human love yet not in His full glory. I am more alive to the Christmas story.
Christmas reminds me of how we have a God who stepped into that tension and stayed with us: Immanuel. His answer to our suffering for all time, “I am with you always…” He doesn’t remove the pain. Not yet. But he neutralizes it. He brings peace as He sits in it with us and holds us in kindness.
Dawn Waters Baker was born and raised a missionary kid in the shadow of Mt.Isarog, an active volcano in a rural area of the Philippines. When she was 10, her family relocated to the big city of Manila, where she was exposed to rampant poverty, and then at age 19, she moved to the U.S. to begin college, and it was there that she found her artistic voice in landscape work. Dawn keeps very busy representing and keeping up with the demand for her work, which has been purchased and/or shown in venues all over the world. For more on Dawn Waters Baker, please click here to go her website.