Dad was declining rapidly. There didn’t feel like much I could do besides keep company, bear witness, continue to show up. It was the only way I knew to give my love and care at this point. I arranged for the hospice chaplain to offer my Dad the Sacrament of the Sick. While I am not particularly religious, Dad had been. In his early adulthood he had been a member of the vestry at our church. I wondered if the words of the Sacrament would bring him solace, and if they would help his body, mind and spirit to unify in recognition that his dying process had begun.
Sadly, when my Dad had begun to decline with dementia, he had not had a doctor who could or would openly discuss what was going on with his body. Nobody ever discussed with him the fact that his condition was terminal, that his body’s systems would close down one at a time until he died. It was clear enough that memory, reasoning, and emotional regulation were declining, but those were our only focus. We never discussed with him the reality that his mind would eventually be unable to communicate with his limbs, mouth and throat. Complex activities like standing up, walking, chewing and swallowing would become challenging and then impossible. But this eventuality was never discussed. Perhaps it would have been too much to process with the limited mental capacity that he had. But it felt unfair, after years of suffering with a terminal illness, that he should arrive at his dying without any mental, emotional or spiritual preparation. If he had regrets, gratitudes, longings or concerns, he had never been offered an opening in conversation to communicate them.
He had been mostly non-verbal for a few months, so could not tell us what he felt. If he spoke at all, the words were not only incoherent, they were mumbled or whispered. He was often lightly asleep in his wheelchair when I arrived for a visit. Sometimes he would acknowledge my presence when I said hello and gave him a hug. Unable to hold his head up, his chin rested on his chest, and even if his eyes opened slightly, he could only see me if I brought my face down to his chest to be in his purview. Sometimes he would remain drifting after my greeting. He was often restless, working at the corners of a blanket or pillow. He seemed uncomfortable in his skin. On those days, he received higher doses of pain and anxiety medication. Upon receiving the medication, the fidgeting would subside and the worried wrinkle of his eyebrows and forehead would soften as he relaxed. Often, he would drift into light sleep.
The day that I had arranged for the chaplain to come was completely different. Dad was alert in a way I hadn’t seen in many months and chatty. The words weren’t all easily forthcoming, but he was clearly talking about how to get where he was going. . . he thought he had it figured out. . . asked what everyone else was doing. . . asked if it was ok. . . said it was almost time… He was looking up with his eyes wide open and looking into my eyes. I don’t think I’d seen the blues of his eyes since the summer! I took his questions and his interest as an opportunity to give him permission to let go. I answered all his questions and assured him that all of his work was done. All of his children and grandchildren were happy and healthy. He had shown us all how to live with love, integrity, kindness and honesty. I had said all of these things before but on that day, I know that he heard me and understood. He was very receptive and aware. I encouraged him to trust the process and told him I would trust the process too. The chaplain arrived just as Dad and I were winding down a good 25 minute heart to heart that had included many fragments of deep conversation, tears, hugs and laughter.
Dad was attentive and alert during the readings and the laying on of hands and we all sat in silence for 5 minutes or more afterwards. I broke the silence by getting up for a tissue and Dad began asking more excited questions. It was hard to follow since his words weren’t all coherent, but he did tell us about. . .all the people I will be seeing. . . I knew this time was coming. . . . she’ll be coming back for me, I know. . . A while later, as the chaplain and I readied to leave, Dad said “well, when I woke up today I knew I wanted to talk about all of this. . . Thank you. . . ” Leaving Dad that day with hugs, chuckles, coherent words, eye contact and gratitude was so sweet and so hard. It was as though he had come back in order to say goodbye. I am so glad that I was there and ready to have that conversation with him.
The chaplain said it was the first time Dad had ever looked at him. I assured him it was more engagement than I had seen in months. I was grateful that the meeting to offer the Sacrament had coincided with such a surprising and lucid afternoon. It felt like a real blessing, a moment of grace to lift our spirits and light the path. I drove away from HC with a much lighter heart that afternoon and felt that Dad’s heart was lightened too.
The next day when I went to visit, Dad was in his wheelchair. His hands were calm on his lap and he was awake and relaxed. I said hello and gave him a kiss. He replied with “thank you, thank you”. I told him that I couldn’t stay because I was on my way to the airport. He replied with “thank you, thank you”. I said “My pleasure. You’re welcome. Thank you.” The caregiver and I shared a glance and a smile. As she walked me to the door, she said “he’s been like this all morning”.
It was very curious. For weeks, he had been struggling with agitation, restlessness, and combativeness. Now, suddenly, he was at peace. It was as if he could feel the opening in his body, the permission granted by our conversation, the forgiveness and promise granted by the Sacrament of the Sick. He was willing and ready to let go of the desperate trying to hold on. Peace had found him — or maybe he had found peace.
It would be a month from that day before he died. In that month, there would be plenty of ups and downs. At the time I was not thinking of the future or the past, I was simply grateful for the deep breath of awareness and ease that we had been granted.