I woke this morning to the empty spaces of a lingering, personal, numbness much like a grey, misting fog stubbornly refuses to lift to an early rising dawn; finding myself groping for what thin, vanishing support remained within the disembodied promises of hope and healing I had heard all week long. I was feeling both a deep, personal loss, and that feeling of a general disorientation that was trying to make sense of everything that had come to pass.
For it was on Tuesday last that I stood over my father's dying body to embrace him long and hard, then begin gently cradling his feverish head between my hands to breath final words to ears that were no longer listening. Believing that touch was the only sense of connection left between a dying person with the land of the living, the body having become dissociated from the spoken words it was hearing so engrossed it was in its impending death. And as my dad laid within a borrowed hospital bed provided by our hospice group, I wetted his face, dabbing his temples with a wet cloth, then compressing drops of cold water into an open mouth that could no longer speak or swallow. Like so many of the previous months before, I felt helpless against dad's long illness and suffering grief. I could only pray the Lord's tender mercies upon a beloved father laboring under diminishing breaths and wordless whispers. As the day wore on dad fought valiantly to the end against a lingering illness that would keep its promise of certain death and final rest.
Six months earlier I had carried dad's broken, feverish, body into the hospital's emergency ward to revive him from a deep, aspirated pneumonia misunderstood and left undiagnosed. My previous visit two weeks earlier, and succeeding daily calls, never informed me of dad's declining health until receiving my mother's call for help on a careworn Thursday afternoon (I was to visit that weekend). Late into the evening the ER doctors worked to stabilize dad's shaking body, all the while asking the inevitable questions of whether the family wished to resuscitate him or not. Afterwards, each of the next eight days and nights revealed to the family how deeply serious dad's chronic condition had become, causing each of us to rethink final preparations for his care. And during this time, as dad laid within yet another hospital bed - this time in the hospital's intensive care ward - his words can still be heard ringing in my head, asking me, "Am I going to die?"
How does a son answer that? "No, you aren't going to die?" "Yes, you are going to die?" How does one respond when, with each passing day, we learn of the many new ways that my father's body was beginning to fail? All the while struggling to educate ourselves as a family how to care for dad's wasting disease known as Parkinson's. Our next steps were to place dad's recovery into a nursing facility's sub-acute unit where we could stall for time while preparing and educating ourselves how to successfully care for dad at home. If we were to honor dad's wishes to go home and die in a place he found comfort and peace, than we needed to somehow prepare for bringing him home without returning him to a nursing home to live out his final days. It was what he wanted,, and what the family would attempt to do, without any medical training behind us. It required teaching my mom, who would become dad's primary care giver, what to look for, and how to effectively help him when he needed it. In effect, at 81 years of age, mom would have to become dad's full-time nurse without previous training or experience. And it is to her credit that she did such an amazing job far beyond anyone's expectations.
We next had to figure out what outside agencies could assist us with the task of bringing (and successfully keeping) dad at home - along with a backup plan in case all failed and came crashing down upon us. After countless days of interviewing nursing homes and agencies over the next several weeks I finally came upon the helpful offices of the Veteran's Administration (VA) and quickly came upon a viable, long-term, solution that soon found me housed within the offices of Hospice of Michigan (HOM). There, under the consult of one of the organization's regional directors, I spoke of my dad's condition. And as I spoke, my confidant's soulful eyes glistened with tears listening to my concerns of medical ethics and personal guilt while asking questions of when is enough, enough, after seven long years and a failed double heart attack? When do you quit? At what point do you stop trying? Are finances sufficient reason? How do we avoid ignorance and ineptitude in dad's care? Questions I needed to ask as I looked down the road to dad's inevitable end. A disquieting end that troubled me as much as it inflicted him with its wasting pains and growing physical dilemmas.
During the next few days I prepared the nursing home staff, and then my family, for the fatal resolution of bringing dad home to die under the care of hospice (even as we entered into the care of the rehab unit, the floor doctor had spoken cautiously weeks earlier of dad's survivability beyond the next several weeks. And to have looked at his depleted condition in the face of his lingering pneumonia one would think the good doctor to be right). We next met with HOM and had the nursing staff meet with my parents and family for a final examination, consult, and patient exit. After eight long days of hospitalization, and another thirty days of rehab and recovery at the nursing home, we transferred dad home to begin preparing a mobile staff of nurses, aides, doctors, social workers, chaplains, medical devices, and equipment around him. Forty days had passed since dad had laid on death's door in my arms, and in the emergency ward, and now he was back home to prepare both himself, his spouse, friends and family, for a slow, wasting death which would come some nineteen weeks later - more than twice the length of time that I actually thought we really had, and none had confidently predicted.
During dad's remaining days we were able to fly in a nephew from South Korea who had recently been released from overseas duty and was coming home on furlough. At his visit hospice thought to honor both dad and grandson for their military service in Korea (it was appropriately timed and thoughtfully suggested as we would later find out). Before a grandson dressed in military blues, a former navy veteran to administer the honorarium, and a news reporter on hand to headline all of the proceedings, each were duly honored and awarded. To which proceedings dad dryly observed that while his grandson served in a clean, dry, warm, barracks far removed from the DMZ, he (at the tender age of 19) was stationed sixty-two years earlier near the Korean front lines in active combat with only a sandbagged hole in the ground for lodging. Above his head stretched a wet, snow-bound canvas that held within it a potbellied stove to stave off the long, cold, wintry months of the Arctic winds. More fortunate than most, dad became the company supply sergeant when the Army found he could type. His duties were to provide warm clothing, boots, blankets, food, armor, and bullets, to the front lines. Fifty years later, in 2003, he would meet some of his frontline buddies for the first time since those days of his youth at a military reunion held by his company's regiment in St. George, Utah. That was ten years ago against a dithering will as to whether he should go or not, but to then happily discover lost war-time friends when he did decide to go with mom. Those were happier times.
Over the ensuing weeks and months, mom and dad slowly allowed hospice to increase their personal services to the family, each thinking dad's days would last forever but finding in reality that his body was beginning to shut down, no longer able to withstand the chronic disease wasting away at dad's muscles and nerves. In dad's final weeks, we would learned just how desperate his end would become... at which point my greatest fears were beginning to haunt me as I witnessed my mother's emotional decline against a strong resolve to not succumb against the daily strain of keeping dad alive. Her mind was beginning to wander, and her unfailing stoutness was beginning to break, under the stresses of seeing her beloved husband becoming more and more diminished. With each new realization came mom's mounting irritability amidst a growing emotional tension within our close-knit family (most easily witnessed by every intrusive visit by son or daughter). At the last, I had hospice meet with the family to discuss dad's final, impending stage while attempting to prepare private-duty nursing for him - and especially for mom in great need of help. Nursing that I was to find out was generally "more in name than in function," when finding agency after agency that would take our money but not lift dad off the floor when he fell (which he did often). Their solution was to call 911. Nor would they help administer medication because of the liability (though a second set of eyes would make me feel better at the behest of mom's continued administration). Hence, the difficulties of making dad's death at home successful were beginning to mount up. Even so, there were a few agencies that would provide for dad's physical care and lifting, although it most generally would go under the name of "aide" of some kind, thus requiring two sorts of people at the house instead of one.
To help reduce some of the tension, and to get mom out of the house so her "batteries might recharge," I took both parents downtown to the city's art festival not long before dad died; my brother would bring dad outside to the wood pile to sit beside him in the sunshine while he split and stacked wood; and my sister would sit with dad while mom took a nap in her favorite swing on the porch; a grandson would stop by to help in the morning - and then my brother again in the evening - with dad's lifting and dressing; and family friends came by to cheer and to pray. By placing dad into hospice's care we found a tremendous resource of help even as we found a reasonable way to prepare everyone for dad's impending death. Though it seemed cruel to begin it so early, it actually began exactly when it should have. From the time when I took dad into emergency, until his death this past Tuesday evening, nearly six months had passed... far longer than I actually thought we had... and far shorter than anyone was actually prepared for.
Which brings me to Tuesday last as I embraced my father, placing my hands to either side of his feverish face, telling him my love for him and what a good dad and friend he had been to me, between gasps for air and fingers that could only squeeze in response. And as I placed my hand on his emaciated breast to pray for the Lord's merciful removal from this life, tears rolled down my face thinking of the grand memories dad and I had shared over so many long years. From working the fields together on the dairy farm as a kid, to hunting, camping, hiking, ball games, and the celebration of Christmas. Even as recently as a week ago my father had asked mother to bring up a few Christmas decorations so he could hear the Hallmark displays sing-and-play over-and-over again one last time. It was his favorite time of the year. Soon, dad fell back asleep under a medicated stupor and I left the room to watch a stream of people troop through the house knowing that he was passing against the prayers of many belatedly entering. I finally decided to leave as the hospice nurse began issuing her final instructions of care. My heart had become overwhelmed and I did to wish to stay for my father's final passing. My sister however, had elected to stay the night, along with a niece, an aunt (my dad's final remaining sister) and mom. As I left I wasn't sure I would see dad again but needed to leave for my soul's sake. And as I left I found myself driving over to my grandmother's childhood farm where dad's cousin resided with his wife and cried with them for a time. Both cousin and father had farmed together and had actively served as firemen together (95 years between the both of them). They knew each other well and I wanted to bring my relatives up-to-date because no one else had called them of late. We each hoped to yet see dad one last time the next day and made plans to meet at the house in the early morning. But that day never came as I steadied dad's cousin at the news of his death earlier that night, helping him into a receiving chair in the family home where he had come to pay final homage with his wife of many years.
On the night before, between great sobs on the phone, my niece had called me, then my sister, to tell of dad's passing. They had briefly left his bedside for a few minutes to get ready for their night shift when they noticed they no longer heard dad's desperate breaths for air. Rushing back they found dad gone. Departed his broken body and with the Lord above. In the space of five minutes dad died to the tears of all. And on a day once joyfully marked on our calendars as the opener for Pheasant season - for dad loved to bird hunt. And the date of October 15 was always marked in red when we would set off across the family farm to traipse through field and brush, rain and snow, mud and wet, with uncles and cousins, to closely watch our sporting dogs working the scrub ahead of us with their snuffling noses to the wet ground. It was upon this the glad day that dad died to go hunting for departed friends and families in the great beyond. A mere ten days before his 83rd birthday as his family sung to him around his bedside when last he awoke earlier in the evening the refrains of "Happy Birthday." And it was but a short week later (yesterday), that I would witness dad's burial under dirt and spade to lie with his son and parents.
And so it was that I would find myself before dad's open coffin on yesterday's pages reliving the rapidly escalating events of the week before as each day blurred into the next. Causing me to react by trying to live normally without feeling too much for fear of never recovering. But it was also on yesterday's autumn morning that I stood with mom receiving friends and family against an honor guard embracing my father's coffin ahead-and-before, locked in time-and-space, and changing out to the regular beat between city and county police, and fire services, as they honored dad as their own family over four long decades of faithful service. It was but brief moments earlier I had stood before dad myself to rest my hand one last time on his stilled breast breathing my goodbyes while I had the time alone before the church opened its wide, glassed doors. To find myself, shortly thereafter, embracing a fireman stepping off the city's fire truck sobbing in my arms in the parking lot, even as I did in his, as he relived his son's unfortunate death two years ago. This was not an uncommon experience over the past two days as mourners came one-after-another to express sympathy and perhaps painfully relive the deaths of lost loved ones yet bereaved. Even so, did my dad carry my brother's untimely death to his grave, in sorrow and in grief. And thus do we bear one another's sorrows. For if we do not, who will?
Soon, family and relatives were somberly ushered to the front of the church. Accolades and sermons were made-and-given. Mindful songs were stirringly sung a cappella, and by weeping grandchildren in disquieted testimony. And all concluded before a lengthy military procession past dad's flag-draped coffin. Away in the distance could be heard the dying echoes of a soulful refrain of taps played on silver'd bugle from somewhere outside. And beneath its hallowed reverence came the reverberation of a 21-gun salute fired before a flag flown at half-mast. And all the while soldier-after-soldier presented long, slow salutes of personal respect and military reverence by an honor guard at my father's military service to his country when but a boy taken from the farm to become a man overnight. A carefully folded flag was next placed into my mother's arms with the spent casings from the volleys in respectful tones of farewell and goodbye. Then under the escort of my father's steel-gray casket, we, his pall bearers, rolled dad out to the awaiting hearse to witness one of my final, lasting images. That of dad being driven away, out-of-sight, clutched between patrol cars and firetruck, to be laid to rest in one of the city's oldest cemeteries. Many with street names for last names. And many of which I too often had buried with my dad in childhood's youth.
There, today, this morning, and last night, lies my father with his wept parents and beloved son. Quietly at peace with his Lord and Savior. "Hail, my dear father, and goodbye. Now rest to await that further day when all will be resurrected to a new body without sickness and death in its bones. Without want or need except for relationship with the dead and living soon to come. And soon to pass. Fair morning has arisen with its exhaustion of tears, its want of lament, and last rays of autumnal sunshine. Worn out, disoriented, we must fumble forward even as you had, searching for the wise use of our remaining days. Seeking the help and goodwill of friends and family. Providing service where needed and prayer for all. Vade in pace."
Tuesday, October 22, 2013