A Time to Die

Compost and gardens and seasons of life

Before my father died two weeks ago, I felt a compulsion to build a compost pile at my parents’ East Texas home. It’s an idea I’ve had many times before but never acted upon. The heaps of garbage bags my family contributed seemed unconscionable in an area with no recycling. The poopy disposable diapers mixed with kitchen waste created an absolutely ungodly smell, so disgust was my first motivating factor. Then it became an act of catharsis and worship. Let’s create something good in this season of horror. Every shovel-full of pine needles heaped on top of cardboard and food physically outweighed the buckets of spit blood my father lost. It is the quickest, biggest, and hottest compost pile I have ever made.

In his last act of considerable strength, my dad designed and prepared the soil for a hay bale garden. My sister’s family completed the planting, and last week a jalapeño was ready to pick. Tomatoes and yellow squash were growing prolifically; every seed had germinated, and starter plants had set innumerable blooms. My father’s garden already bore fruit for us to discover the day after he left, posthumous reminders of his generosity that will continue for months.

In the middle of this pandemic, family and friends gathered together under my parents’ roof to support one another and grieve together. At one time there were 14 of us sleeping on beds, cots, couches, and floors. An array of nurses, chaplain, and funerary staff came and went. Day-tripping cousins brought vintage family videos and food. My brother-in-law’s family drove their RV from Florida to stay a few days. Cousins from San Antonio came to be with Daddy during night watches. Dear friends drove overnight from California to hug him and stay with my mom after the memorial.

Larry Walker, the patriarch of the California clan, is a missionary, pastor, and my dad’s best friend. In his message at Daddy’s memorial, he spoke about John’s Revelation, when we see the Lion of the tribe of Judah superimposed with the image of the slain Lamb of God. The lion who conquers doesn’t do it by military force or brutal subjugation. He conquers by suffering, by laying down his life as the lamb. Suddenly my compost pile, my dad’s death, and the rhythms of the earth came into sharp focus. Compost creates nutrients for living plants by decomposing the dead ones. Seeds die to make new plants. Ecologically speaking, death brings life. Jesus’ death makes eternal life with God possible. And that’s where my dad is now. Free from cancer. Entropy. Sin. Fully alive.

Every living thing has a beginning and an end–a lifetime–says a recent children’s book addition to our home library. “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1 NIV). Americans fall prey to the idea that we deserve abundance, that we can save ourselves through brute strength–political, military, or commercial. Christians are promised abundance by the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:10, 11). This is 100% ironic, and it’s supposed to be. No amount of doing better or trying harder will save, heal, or create lasting change. God transforms us as we surrender to Him. Now is a time to weep, mourn, and feel the weight of my father’s death. Joshua’s grandfather’s and uncle’s deaths in the last month. 350,000+ COVID-19 deaths. It won’t always be like this. Some new normal will emerge, and we will heal. Just not today.