Dad’s last four days were heavy with emotion. My brothers came and we settled in to keep Dad company. We were there to bear witness to his dying, hoping to ensure that he felt surrounded by love as he left life and providing living proof that his life had been worthwhile. All 4 of his children were there. His work was done. He had raised us to be conscientious, responsible adults and we were now raising our children in that same effort. Our presence reflected the same values that we had seen paramount in Dad’s life: family, hard work, patience, persistence, honesty, goodness and kindness. The chaplain read the Last Rites while my brothers and I laid hands on his pale, still body willing our love to transfer directly to his heart and spirit.
For 3 days his breathing became slower and shallower. It seems that the hospice and residence staff told us “it won’t be long now” every 12 hours. For a whole afternoon, we counted 5 shallow breaths in a row and waited 10, then 20 then 30 seconds before another series of breaths would continue. The medication nurses came in every four hours, then every two and finally every hour to provide him with pain medication that kept him from gasping for air and wincing with the struggle. The residential staff would come twice a day to bathe him and change the bed clothes. They tended to his body with the same loving care with which my brothers and I hoped to tend to his heart.
The days and nights that the 5 of us spent in that room merged together. We alternated between talking and silence. We talked about our kids, our jobs, our spouses. We reminisced about other family members and meaningful moments of compassion and grace that our Dad had shown. We took turns holding Dad’s hands or rubbing his back. We told him over and over again how much we loved him, and thanked him for the life and value in life that he had given us. The staff began to encourage us to get out for a while and we tried to balance the desire to provide support for Dad with the desire to give him space. It turns out that many parents won’t die in front of their children, protecting them even as they are dying. That seemed likely for Dad. He had always carried his burdens stoically, alone and out of sight. We created opportunities to leave the room and said good-bye for the last time each time that we left. We lingered over lunch and dinner. We took long walks and drives. Finally, two of my brothers said truly final goodbyes and went home to their families with tears in their eyes. My husband arrived and sat with Dad for a few minutes, assuring him that he would take care of me and thanking him for the guidance, love and encouragement that he had given us as a couple and as individuals. We went to dinner as the staff came in to clean Dad up for the night. As we walked past the window outside, we could see the two young caregivers shaving his thin chin.
As my brother and I got back from dinner that night, Dad was breathing steadily. I realized that I had been clinging to his dying just as I had previously clung to his living. I had given time, energy, care and support in our caregiving relationship and as he moved towards dying, I continued to be right there. But I was still hanging on to that. And as he lay dying, I saw my place firmly among the living earth and realized that I needed to release myself from the tether that our relationship had become. I suddenly worried that somehow I had made it harder for him to die because I was still holding on to our relationship so tightly. Life is all that we know, letting go of it was clearly hard work for him, but maybe it was for me too. For the last few years, Dad’s life had been only the present moment. Aspiration, regret, fear, longing and relationship were my projections, not his realities. As I said good night that night, I said good-bye for real and assured him I was really ready. I was. And so was he.
As the evening wore on, we heard his breathing getting quieter, shallower and slower as we were falling asleep. Dad died with the same gentle strength that he had lived with, slowly and quietly. He slipped away early that Saturday morning while we were sleeping just a few feet away. It was very like him to wait until we were not paying attention and exit quietly.
Dad’s body was washed and dressed one final time. We lingered, waiting for the funeral home to come to pick up his body, wanting to be sure we ushered him all the way through the process. But a snow storm was approaching and we realized that there was nothing left to do. In the hallway, we could hear caregivers and residents beginning to prepare for the day. It was time for us to leave.
When we stepped into the still dark morning, fresh snow falling, I took a deep breath. The fresh air felt good and the world appeared familiar. That was reassuring because within that world, I had felt an earthquake. My perceptions had shifted dramatically and irreversibly. I did not immediately understand how or why, but I knew that my heart, mind and body had experienced something wholly new, all mine and completely universal.