This is a picture of my father, John Henderson. It was taken in May, 1952, about six months after my parents were married. I believe he had just purchased that car, but I’m not positive. The berries surrounding the picture are Nandina berries. I can trace my Nandina bushes back to my grandparents farm. I can never remember being in their house, but that my grandmother didn’t have some type of blooms or berries (often Nandina) in a Mason jar on the kitchen table.
My father was called Jack by all who knew him. He died about 2:00 p.m. on Monday, March 20, 2006 at the Johnson City Medical Center; this year will mark 14 years since he died.
The day was cold and snowy, a beautiful, wet snow that laid on the ground and trees, but not the sidewalks or streets. The cause of death was an aggressive form of pulmonary fibrosis; while he was diagnosed with this just a few days prior to his death, he had been in the hospital since February 19. Thankfully, he never had any pain.
I am going to describe how Jack (and that’s what I called him, because that was his name) died. It may bring tears to your eyes or make cold chills run up and down your spine. If you are a Christian, it will serve to strengthen your faith. All I can say is that it is real, it really happened; my mother and I both witnessed it, as did our internist.
I returned from running some essential errands and eating a bite of lunch about 12:45; my mother, who had stayed with Jack the night before, was waiting for our internist, Dr. Thomas Schnell, to make his rounds for the day. After that, she planned to go home, sleep for a bit, and then come back that night.
When I came in, I asked Jack how he was feeling. He said, “About like usual – OK.” He turned over and resumed sleeping. (For about a week, he had been on morphine from time to time to ease his breathing, but would always wake up and speak coherently when spoken to.)
My mother and I both sat down, reading material in hand, waiting for Dr. Schnell.
About 1:20, Jack started moving around in bed, and saying, “Loose…..loose…..loose!”
One of Jack’s worst fears was that he would be restrained in bed; he had asked Mama and me both to promise that we would not let this happen. I thought, therefore, that he might feel that he was being restrained, so I asked him if he felt that he was. He said, “Yes.”
I then put my hand on his for maybe 10 seconds, and then removed my hand. I told him that I had touched his hand, but I wasn’t touching it anymore; in fact, no one was touching him. Still, he kept saying, “Loose….loose….loose.” About this time, which was around 1:30, Dr. Schnell came in the room.
Dr. Schnell asked Jack if he could open his eyes. Jack did not. He asked Jack to take a couple of deep breaths; again, Jack did not. Dr. Schnell pulled my mother and me to the side and said, “I have a feeling this is it.” Mama and I both agreed.
Jack resumed the “loose….loose…..loose” conversation. I asked again if he felt he was being restrained. He said he was. I asked him how he was being restrained, and he said, “Jesus is holding me.” Jack opened his eyes, and they had the most unusual expression in them; I really cannot explain it. When Jack died, it was with his eyes open and that same, unusual expression in them.
I quickly told Jack that he did not want Jesus to let loose of him, and Jesus would not let go of him. My mother expressed similar sentiments. That seemed to settle him down for a couple of minutes.
(After Jack’s death, Dr. Schnell said he felt Jack was telling his soul to leave his body when he was saying, “Loose….loose…..loose.” A good friend of mine, Joy Miller, who would be on my Executive Committee if I had one, said maybe Jack was telling my mother and me to symbolically turn him loose to go to Heaven. I think both explanations have great merit and validity.)
Dr. Schnell returned to Jack’s bedside, stood there, and just held his hand for several minutes. Jack started reaching for the top of his bed, near his IV pole. I asked him if he was reaching for something, and he said, “Yeah.”
“What are you reaching for?” I asked. Jack replied he was “reaching for Jesus.”
I asked Jack if he could see Jesus and he replied, “Yes,” with a tone that suggested obviously the rest of us in the room were somewhat lacking in good sense for not being also able to see Jesus.
Jack was still trying to reach toward the top of his bed, so my mother and I, almost simultaneously and using almost identical words, told Jack to reach as far up as he could, and that Jesus would reach down as far as He needed to in order to take Jack to Heaven. Jack then said, “Oh, OK.”
Dr. Schnell pronounced him dead about 3 or 4 minutes later. What a peaceful passing! As Dr. Schnell said, “This has been a religious experience.”
Fourteen years. A very impactful and influential life, not only to me, but also to many others, not only during his life, but also in his death.
My grandfather, Jack’s father, donated his body to the University of Tennessee Medical School upon his death in 1967. For years, Jack had often said, “One of these days, I need to go out to the College (Quillen College of Medicine) and sign papers to donate my body when I die. Maybe somebody can learn something from it.”
There was absolutely no question in either Mama’s mind, nor mine, that was Jack’s intention, so upon his death, we signed the necessary paperwork for that learning experience to occur for medical students. Jack’s final act.
Copyright, March 16, 2020 by Rebecca Henderson