Over the past two and ½ weeks our family has been together through a sweet, tumultuous, and incredibly challenging time as we said goodbye on earth to Dr. Rafael Zelaya, Alexa’s father.
I am so grateful to the staff, leadership team, and entire family of HPHC who helped us get here and spend nearly three weeks away from our ministry in North Carolina. You will never know what this has meant to us.
We came to Honduras with the understanding that his illness was very serious and that we may have to say goodbye to him. As much as we had prepared our hearts for this, none of us was ready for it to happen. I don’t think you can ever be completely ready for a death.
To say the least, it has been a trip of many ups and downs. There were about two days here when we thought he likely would pull out of this. Then there were many days when it seemed that this hope was not to be.
On Sunday the 11th of June he sat up and talked with us. He wanted to put on his glasses and his watch. He called for all the grandchildren to come and visit with him. All of them that were able to be in Honduras came to his room that day. It was a special day. At the time we didn’t know it would be the last of this kind of day.
On Thursday evening June 21st, we received word that after all of the struggle that the end was near. He had an infection in his lungs that would not respond to treatment and was quickly taking his life.
We spent the entire day and much of the night Friday with him as the final struggle had begun. His oldest son Rafael was on his way to the hospital from the United States and we were praying that he would make it to Tegucigalpa before his father passed. He arrived around 11:30 that evening.
Then around 2:40 AM on Saturday June 23, his heart suddenly stopped beating. And he breathed his last breath with his sons by his side.
We had just left the hospital at midnight to come home and get some rest. At 2:45 my brother in law Guillermo woke me up and told me that Rafael had passed. We decided to let Alexa and her sister sleep until morning and then break the news to them.
About six am I shared the news with Alexa. Through the night Guillermo had made arrangements with the funeral home and prepared for the funeral to be the next day.
We gathered at the funeral home at 10 AM the next day and stayed until midnight greeting family and friends. We played Frank Sinatra music all day long during the visitation. You might think that strange for a funeral, but if you had known my father in law, you would understand that it was perfect.
Around 7 PM we gathered everyone together and had the funeral. A praise band came from their Gaby and Guillermo’s church. Their Pastors preached a beautiful funeral message. Then Alexa’s oldest brother and I shared words about Rafael with everyone there. It was a beautiful service with a tremendously good spirit there.
At the end the pastor called the whole family forward for prayer. I have never in my life had a moment of personal grief like that moment. Holding Alexa and Michael and Daniella as they grieved was one of the most emotional moments I have ever had. I wasn’t prepared for it.
The next day we had a bit of rest and then departed Monday to scatter his ashes at his favorite spot on earth, the beach at Coyolito. We had a small ceremony there at the beach where each of the children and grandchildren sprinkled his ashes into the sea. Then the sons and sons in law and a cousin took a boat out into the harbor to scatter the remaining ashes in the sea that he loved.
That evening and again the next morning we swam in the ocean and pool, ate clams and fish, and had a time at the beach just like we used to do together. I told Alexa that his last gift to us was a day at the beach.
Here is what God has taught me the last two weeks:
1. God’s ministers are everywhere in many forms.
Rafael passed away at the hospital where he had served for the last 18 years. His office was a stone’s throw from the room in which he died. The people he had worked closest with were there to serve him in the final days of his earthly life.
I cannot tell you how blessed I was to see the doctors and nurses that passed through that room. Many of them left with tears in their eyes, for Rafael had been a mentor in their lives. On one of the last nights a doctor took him by the hand and wept.
The hospital janitor especially blessed me. His job was to move things around, clean up, and see to the maintenance of the room. But there was another greater reason he was there. He took Rafael by the hand and prayed with him. He prayed with him to bring assurance that he was ready to leave this world. At the end he brought the family much needed wisdom and counsel. This man was a pastor in that hospital even though his job title was janitor.
2. True friends are among life’s richest jewels.
Rafael had a lifelong friend with him throughout his life and throughout this final earthly journey. This friend’s mother and Rafael's mother had been friends, been pregnant at the same time and said that their babies would be best friends. They were best friends for 76 years. This man came every day and talked with Rafael. In fact Rafael died on this man's 50th wedding anniversary and he was still there with us at the funeral home and traveled with us to the beach for the final ceremony.
I can't tell you how seeing this friendship affected me. It was true friendship to the end. I want to have friends like that at the end of my life.
3. Nothing happens at random.
I mentioned the trip on the boat to scatter the ashes. Along with the sons and sons in law came a cousin Jose Roberto a dentist here in Tegucigalpa.
We each took a turn scattering some of the ashes. When Jose Roberto’s turn came, he scooped up some of the ashes and stopped us and said, “Look at this!” In the ashes was a piece of metal. It was a pin that had held a crown in Rafael’s mouth. The startling fact is that Jose Roberto himself had done this very dental work.
It was no coincidence that he was the one to scoop up this tiny piece of metal. Only he would have recognized it. I don’t know all that God was saying to us in this. But I do know that God was telling us that He was there, and that everything is under His control.
4. Until you are ready to die, you are not ready to live.
In the final moments of his life, my father in law was praying and calling out to God. He had assured us all that he had made complete peace with God in every area of his life. That is the most comforting thing that we can imagine; that because of Christ, our beloved Papi is now in Christ’s glory.
5. True joy is found in serving others.
My father in law was a brilliant doctor. He completed his internship at Harvard University in Boston. After leaving Harvard he had many opportunities to work in the States and in other places in the world. But he chose to come home and serve the people he loved.
He cared for many people without charging them anything. He gave of himself when it didn’t seem to pay off. But his heart was filled with the desire to serve others and to make a difference.
I will always be richer for having known this man.