It was the anniversary of my Dad’s death earlier this week. Every Autumn I remember back to that year and to all the beauty and love, sadness and dignity, loss and growth our family went through. Dad knew he was dying, he had grown weaker and more tired, and took several naps a day. I remember my Mom, siblings, Aunt and I taking him to his cardiologist’s office to have his implantable cardiac defibrillator turned off. They have to do this when a person is actively dying, or the defibrillator would keep shocking and shocking trying to get the heart into rhythm when it stops. His doctor talked with him, asked him questions, and asked us if we had any questions. It has to be a sobering moment for a doctor to know that there is nothing more that they can do for their patient. The handshakes, hugs, and kind words from him and the staff as they said goodbye to a patient they knew they would never see again spoke volumes about the seriousness of the situation, and their fondness for Dad.
That last couple of months our family came together as we hadn’t been since childhood. Us kids took turns spending days and evenings with Mom so that there was always someone there to help. We bathed him, encouraged him to eat a few bites of food, refilled his water cup, helped him roll over and try to get comfortable. By the end we were all basically living there. I did loads of laundry every day, we took turns cooking a meal or going to pick something up. We were so grateful when kind neighbors and friends would drop off food or snacks. My youngest sister and I had longer drives to our day jobs, while my middle sister and brother were walking distance to their evening and weekend jobs. Our varying schedules helped with ensuring that there was always someone there.
While Dad slept I would frequently sit quietly in a chair just to be with him. We’d have conversations about whatever was on his mind. His faith was strong. He knew he was going to heaven. Dying wasn’t what bothered him, it was the “collateral damage” that concerned him. Knowing that everything would change, worrying about Mom and what would happen to her.
I remember conversations with Mom as we laid in bed with Dad. About how we can’t see the big picture. God has the big picture and knows that everything is going to turn out all right. It’s like a tapestry and we see this little, teeny, tiny corner of the picture and don’t know or understand how it’s all connected to everything else, and keeps going on.
The opportunity for closeness and increased faith when someone is dying is a gift. Was it hard? Oh yeah. It was exhausting and stressful. I spent the last month living out of a paper grocery sack of clothes that I would stop by my house and exchange on my way home from work when I couldn’t stand wearing the same outfits over and over again for another week. Like my sister, I burned through every sick, personal and vacation day to go to appointments for Dad and to be there for Mom.
By that last week we were all walking zombies from the lack of sleep and the stress. The slightest sound from Dad and we would hop out of bed, or leap up from a chair, bound over a laundry basket like a gazelle running to see what he needed. Since I had no more time off, I went to work on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday wearing my usual business attire. Yet I bundled up in a zip front hoodie over my dress while at my desk, huddled in it like a hug. When I got to my parents home after work, the hospice nurse who visited daily and the CNA who visited twice a week were in the bedroom talking. As soon as I heard Dad’s breathing, I knew we were at the end.
It’s called the death rattle, and once you’ve heard it, you know what it means. I hugged Mary, our nurse, and thanked her for being there for us, knowing that we would probably never see her again. I don’t know if Mom fully grasped it yet, but I know my sisters did. We spent the evening together and all went to bed, and Mom got in the shower. Although it was very late, and I was exhausted, I felt the need to climb out of the guestroom bed I was sharing with my sister and go talk to Dad. I laid my head on his chest, told him that I loved him, and that we would take care of Mom. Mom heard me in there and asked from the shower if everything was ok. I told her it was, then continued my conversation with Dad. I told him that it was ok to let go, that we would be alright.
Dad went to heaven to be with Jesus in the early hours of the morning, a place he had already glimpsed when he was slipping out of consciousness and proclaimed “So beautiful, all the colors and light, it’s just so beautiful!”
Oh, how I miss him! He was so fun, and funny, so smart and handy, a grounding force in our lives. I wish he could be here to enjoy our expanding family. The grandchildren, weddings, and great-grandchildren that have added more love to our family, with two more weddings planned within the next year. He would have enjoyed the babies and children, and having more people to love.
Death can shake your faith, or it can help it grow stronger. God increased my faith, changing me in ways both simple and profound. I am much more focused on the things that are important in life, I am at peace. I feel joy and calmness, and going to Mass makes me happy, gives me the foundation in life that I need. “Thank you Jesus” is a common enough refrain because I do realize how very blessed I am. I pray that when you encounter troubles, that you find the love and joy that your heart seeks, that your faith is increased. Will you open your heart to Him?