Even in death he spoke words of life to me. I had looked up to him my entire life and when the time came for me to watch him die, my love and admiration for him only deepened. Upon hearing from his doctor that there was nothing else that could be done, he simply nodded that he understood. The doctor had delivered the grave news with tear-filled eyes which betrayed the fact that my father had even had an impact on him. That’s how it always had been with my dad. He was a man in every sense of the word; strong, capable, and protective of his family. Still, he had a gentle and compassionate heart that was ever willing to offer advice or words of encouragement to anyone.
Even after he was moved to a Hospice Unit the truth of the situation seemed to elude me. Just as he taught me to be, I remained strong for my family. One night, when my mother and sister had left the room, he called me to his side. I went to him, leaned in, ready to hear his words. He said, “When this happens your mother and sister will likely go to pieces. You’ll need to be strong for them, make sure they make it through okay.” I placed my hand on his head and said, “Don’t worry dad. I promise I will see them through.” I kept my promise, compartmentalizing my own emotions in order do so. It has been close to three years since he spoke those words to me and I have looked back in awe of that moment hundreds of times. Even in death, his death, his concern was for others. What a lesson that was and he would teach me even more in the coming days.
Though he was in considerable pain, he did not wish to be sedated into oblivion, a wish I ensured was followed. Family members visited with him, each wishing to have just one more moment with the man who had always been there for them. Even though many of the family members didn’t really get along with each other, the one thing they all had in common was the influence this man, my dad, had been on their lives. What a testament to a life lived with love and compassion and another lesson made clear to me.
I was there at the moment he drew his very last breath. Staying true to the promise I had made to him, I remained strong for my mother, who said goodbye to her husband of fifty years, and for my sister who had just lost her father.
A few days later at the funeral home, on visitation night, I stood by my mother’s side in front of the casket. I remember being in awe as people just kept streaming in to pay their respects. People were literally lined up out the door waiting for their turn to say goodbye. I watched as evidence of a lifetime spent truly caring for others manifested before my eyes. Even though I knew my dad so very well, I was amazed at how many lives he had impacted. Another lesson.
I’m often told that I am just like my father, a sentiment I doubt I deserve, but I am honored nonetheless. I am glad dad taught me strength and that I was able to fulfill my promise to stay strong through those last days. I have grieved, but in bits and pieces. A little here and a little there.
I write now, offering these bits and pieces as a way to say “Thanks dad, for showing me the power of love, compassion and the right word spoken at the right time.”
During the days spent in Hospice, I typed into my iPhone the following words. Maybe they were the beginning of my own process of grieving, but held inside until the time came I could let my guard down. I release them now, letting them burn away as I type them, their ashes scattered to the winds. If I have a prayer at this moment it would be that my life and my words have an influence as powerful as my dad’s.
At first, a Hospice Unit seems kind of nice. Larger rooms, nicer decor, better nurse-to-patient ratio….after a few days, however, the reality of the situation and the true purpose of such a place reveals itself.
No matter the well-placed art on the walls or the hardwood floors; In spite of the smiling faces of the staff, the free coffee , bagels and ice water…. This is a place of death. A temporary abode for the dying. There’s no healing attempted here, for it’s inhabitants are beyond that which medicine or treatment can provide.
Most days are accompanied by sounds of sobbing from one room or another, as another patient dies and their families grieve. One listens, waits, and wonders when their turn will be.
Don’t misunderstand, much good is done here as some suffering is made easier, through administration of various nerve-numbing medications, and certainly family members are counseled by chaplains or nurses and prepare for the death of the one they love.
Days pass with little or no sleep, you become so absorbed in the situation that you forget to eat. Fatigue finds its way into your body, and eventually your mind. After a while you begin to wish for it to end, and immediately chastise yourself harshly for the only way it can end is for the one you love to die.
I look around the room and I see the faces of my family drawn tight by sadness, fatigue and stress. Some dozing, others with tears running down their cheeks, and some just stare blankly.
One becomes torn as they wish for the suffering to end, and yet not willing to let go.
Through all of this I wonder. I wonder about death and why some times it is unexpected and swift, while at other times it is painfully and agonizingly slow. Is one way to be favored over the other? Is one less or more painful to endure?
These things I ponder even while I sleep, or attempt to anyway. In this moment I lean toward the swift and unexpected path. Like the removing of a band-aid. All at once, with one swift and violent motion. Done. Over. Quick.
Painful? Yes, but having been endured for much less time.