After a long final illness, my father finally passed away early this morning at the age of 90. Although he lived well and died at home, it was an emotional and physical rollercoaster at the end, and I was left trying to figure out the point of it all. Does it mean something, or is it just the final, cruel grinding down of a human life to ash without any hope or purpose?
I think it was the nurses who finally gave me my answer: not by word, but by deed.
My father was a strong man with a body broken–repeatedly–in service to others. Seventy-six years (!) as a church usher, 25 years as a volunteer fireman, 4 years in the 8th/9th Air Force and the Army of Occupation in the European theater, many more years serving at his church’s soup kitchen, and a lifetime of backbreaking construction work (one of the most dangerous and least-respected professions) to support a family. He lost the two things that were his own private pleasures–bowling and golf–following a construction accident in which he saved the life of a falling man, only to have his shoulders destroyed, leaving him in pain for the last 20+ years of his life.
His hands were rough and his fingers pointed in different directions from being crushed or broken so many times. He survived countless accidents, illnesses, and surgeries. When he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm at age 87, doctors discovered that his heart was so strong they recommended valve replacement surgery, from which he recovered quickly and completely. If not for the lung cancer, that heart would have kept him going past 100. (Yes, I know: “And other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…”)
The man was made of bailing wire and leather. In the end, this made things all the harder for him, because his body just would not stop functioning. “I’m ready to go,” he kept telling me, telling everyone. He was at peace, he couldn’t move, see, or hear well. He could barely eat. He was wasting away. He wasn’t in pain: the hospice and the morphine took care of that. But he couldn’t do anything but sit in his recliner. He couldn’t even see or hear the TV.
Last week, he stopped being able to do even that.I was sleeping in his room when he awoke needing to go the bathroom. I helped him there and we were on the way back when he couldn’t go any further. I was able to get him to the hospital bed that had been placed in his room “just in case,” and which he insisted he would never use. That was where he stayed until the end. A short time later, he lost consciousness. Every night, a different visiting nurse would tell me he wouldn’t make it to the morning, and every morning, there he was, day after day, fading away but never dying. Finally, after days of this left me exhausted and twitchy, I let my wife start sharing the burden. She took the last two days, and proved by her kindness, strength, and nurturing that women just do this better.
There were brief “rallies” and flickers here and there. One day, he was muttering something, and when my mother asked him who he was talking to, he said, “All of them” with a smile. He would regain tiny slivers of consciousness and his eyes would focus on blank places in the room, one after another, and smile beatifically.
He finally stopped waking up at all, but that heart kept pumping, to the confusion of the nurses and everyone else. Less than a hundred pounds, almost a week without food or more than a few drops of water, somehow he just kept grinding on. When they said it would only be hours it was days. When they said it was probably only minutes, it was hours.
My mother got angry. “What is the purpose of this? Why doesn’t God take him?” I said maybe it was to draw us closer to God in prayer. “I’m praying less,” she snapped. “I’m angry.”
I wasn’t too pleased with Him either.
I knew that this was the way of the world, and that one day my son may sit by my bed as I sat by my father’s. I reminded him of this while I went through it, and I knew that this was a lesson taught by living and dying in a certain way, and those are the most important and permanent lessons.
But I also knew there seemed to be no earthly reason for this body to continue functioning. He wasn’t suffering, mind you. Hospice does wonders in that regard, and morphine is a beautiful thing. He just was in that shadowy land between life and death. Everyone had gathered, and left. Everyone had said goodbye. We’d had our moments of grace and our lovely farewells. It was down to just my mother and me, night after night, praying for his release. And now I finally think I understand it.
He was, at the end, as he was in the beginning: like an infant. And, like infant, he was cared for with the kind of gentleness a mother gives to helpless newborn. The nurses of hospice treated his body with dignity, even when his mind could no longer function, putting lie to the notion that only our brains matter. All of them had stories to tell about their experiences with patients’ visions of the afterlife near death, and none of them was without faith. Each had seen things in their work with the dying that made a lack of faith utterly impossible. You may not be able to say “there are no atheists in foxholes” any more, but I can tell you there are damn few in hospice nursing.
They did all this because it was their job and they were paid to do it, but they did it with a tenderness and compassion that went beyond that: that indicated people with a calling. I helped when and how I could, but they were like a kind of priesthood of care, and they were better when left to do their work the way they knew best.
Curled up in a bed hemmed in by rails like a crib, he was left to their mercies, and mercy he received. They gently washed his body, lotioned his cracked skin, put dressings on his sores, gave him medicine, changed his diapers and his shirt, brushed his hair, and talked to him. They’d moisten his lips with swabs like foam lollipops, and once in a while, to my surprise, he’d move his mouth automatically to suck the water from them.
“Sucking is the first thing we do in life,” a nurse explained, “and it’s the last thing to go.”
And that’s when I began to get it just a bit, maybe. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” We end back and the beginning. My father had lived long and been strong, growing from a helpless child into a soldier, husband, father, builder, and Christian. This man who had given everything he had to others had one last lesson to give: we are not in charge. God comes in His Own time, and in His Own way.
His body was broken for his family, and seeing it there, used up and consumed at the last, he was like a lesson in sacrifice. I could see it in a way I never had before. I could see the scars left by a hard life, and the dignity still remaining in this man created in the image and likeness of his Creator. Life draws away from us with each breath, and sacrifice is implicit in every moment. This is certainly how it should be for a father, and how it was for the Son. Each death is a recapitulation of Calvary, and in suffering we are closest to the cross.
The bodies we have are noble and God-created: enfleshed spirit. They are wombs for the soul to be born into heaven, and one day we will return to these bodies, only to find them perfected. And after this our exile, we will come face to face with the first fruit of that womb, and there will be neither tears, nor death, nor mourning, nor crying, nor pain.
Requiem Aeternam dona eis, Domine
et lux perpetua luceat eis:
Requiescant in pace. Amen.