Seventeen days later (see previous post) I landed in Ohio. At 10:30pm as I negotiated my rental car out of the parking garage my brother phoned. “I think you should go directly to the nursing home. I’ll meet you there.” David wasn't sure Dad would live until morning. “I don’t believe he will know you,” he told me. “He has stopped responding to people.”
Staff greeted me warmly. “He told us about you!” Several followed us to the room where Dad lay with eyes closed, skeletal and pale.
I leaned over him speaking my presence and reaching to touch. Dad’s sky-blue eyes flew open and his arms stretched to embrace me and pull me to him.
“You’re here!” he breathed. “And you are beautiful.” The last words my father would speak to me. Everyone else silently withdrew. My heart was sure then that it was for me to stay by his side to the end.
That first watch I pulled a chair near and facing him. I held his hands, talked some. Attendants came and went with meds and efforts of comfort. Dad alternated between restless agitation and quiet as the pain mounted and fell back. Sometime in the wee morning hours after I’d sat in the same position for hours, I made a move for the bathroom. I thought Dad was asleep. As I stood and stepped back, Dad suddenly gripped my hands and pulled me hard down so that I almost fell on top of him. Held tight in a grip I would not have believed he could muster, “Dad,” I said in his ear, “I’m not leaving. Bathroom. I’ll be right back.” The powerful grip relaxed.
Thus ensued two days of walking with Dad through a suffering death. He no longer ate and we stopped trying to feed him. Soon he refused even a sip of water. “Help me!” he would cry again and again. Once or twice he called my brother’s name. “David, help me!”
Those hours blur, but some images remain.
Me in the recliner next to Dad’s bed. I thought about a friend who died at home years ago. Joyce was in a normal double bed and I’d been able to climb in and lay right next to her as we prayed thankfulness for God’s goodness. I longed to do that for Dad, to let him who was beyond sight and words feel my closeness.
Jet-lagged sleep punctuated by Dad’s cries. Rising to cover him. At times restraining him as he thrashed and came near falling from the bed. He would pull off the hospital gown and throw off the covers, and I could hear Job whisper, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21)
“I’ve gotta go!” For two hours Dad cried out again and again. Desperate, he struggled to pull himself out of bed, legs flailing like he was on the run. I projected my imaginings and so did the nurses. “He’s ready to go.” As the frantic struggle increased a more practical observer wondered if he wanted the toilet. Two aids helped and Dad found blessed relief. Then his heart stopped. They panicked and roused him. And I wondered why that seemed so important. Then and still I marveled at how Dad never lost his sense of his own dignity—no incontinence for him, no one would change his fouled diaper. Even as he waited at life’s threshold he fought to communicate his need.
Staff came and went, ministering with tenderness to Dad and to me. One took her lunch break to sit with him while I went for shower. Without being asked, she honored my desire that Dad not go through this alone. The hospice nurse kept coming back to sit and talk with me. Bemused, I finally asked about her evident concern. “I’m okay, good,” I told her. “Yes,” spoken with some amazement. “You are. We don’t often see that." She wanted to talk some about faith, about Dad’s search and resistance. A faith I don’t think she owned, but she could see in me.
Pain. Drugs. Over and over Psalm 23 spoken over Dad as I longed in prayer to see him through to peace. Then, at last, three final ragged breaths, and his whole body relaxed into death while David and I held his hands.
What wondrous love is this? The haunting old folk hymn echoes through me still. Through long days and nights of pain and confusion, Dad waited for me to come, waited until I could walk by his side to the threshold. Later I learned that twice in those seventeen days before I got there he violated his hospice agreement to choose life-prolonging treatment. He hoped it would give time for me to get there. He talked about me to anyone who had time to listen. And yet I was never pressured with this knowledge. I was allowed to make my own prayerful Lazarus-choice to remain where I was and attend to what was already before me before making my way to Dad.
Dad waited. Suffered. Loved me. No pressure. No reproach. He received me in my absence and when I came. The hymn will forever entwine with Dad’s passing.
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
to bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul,
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.
And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be;
And through eternity, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on;
And through eternity, I’ll sing on.