Wendy called. She had heard about Tom's passing and the
enormous peace that filled our hearts and home. My friend challenged:
"Mary, you've got to share your story on your blog. You will
encourage other families going through hard times." Of course, I
knew she was right. The Lord has been nudging me too. "I want
to heal families, He told me. Tell your story."
In our family, we have often said that God can use you and change your story until your last breath. I always believed that, and then I saw it with my own two eyes.
I was never the peacemaker in the family. That role belonged to my sister and mother. I was the feisty one. The one that wasn’t going to put up with bad behavior. My dad had mental illness. Where my mother and sister continually gave him a pass, I harbored resentment and anger being raised by a dad like that. It got worse into my adulthood, and I learned to cope by keeping him at arm’s length. I loved my dad, but loving a person with mental illness is complicated. The day he died, God made it uncomplicated. He told me to forgive him.
On the early morning of May 30th, 2022, I could hear it in my mom’s voice on the phone that I needed to get there that day. I live 4 hours away and had been there the week before. I had said a heartfelt goodbye to my dad at the end of that visit and had reconciled that I would probably never see him again. He was in hospice and was last stage pancreatic cancer. He had stopped all chemo treatments the weeks before. It was just too much.
I loaded up my car that Sunday and arrived about noon. My sister, sleep deprived and emotionally spent, collapsed into my arms and wept. Mom did the same. Then they both took long naps and I took over med duty, and held Dad’s hand for hours. Dad was non communicative at this point but he gave me two long blinks as I told him he didn’t have anything to worry about, we were going to take good care of Mom. Mostly we just sat quietly until the death rattle began.
I knew that cancer had a bad end, but I admit that I did not research it, and was not prepared for what I would see and hear that day. Hospice was not available because they were short-staffed and it was Memorial Day weekend. We were on our own to navigate these final traumatic hours.
Listening to Dad’s labored breathing was extremely difficult, but I stayed next to him, holding his hand. It began to soften me towards him. All of the harbored anger and resentment left. I just desperately wanted peace for him.
I picked up the pamphlet Hospice had given Mom. It talked about what to expect in the final weeks, days, hours and minutes. It said that sometimes a dying person will hold on because 1) They are afraid to die, or 2) They feel they have unfinished business. The second I read that, I heard the Holy Spirit say, “Tell Dad you forgive him.”
I was alone with Dad and I leaned over him and said, “Dad…I forgive you. I forgive you for all of it. You have no unfinished business here.” The second after, his eyes got wide and his breathing changed and became even more intense. I called for Mom and my sister to come. We all held his hand and stroked his hair. He passed four minutes later.
It was silent for the first time in the house. No more oxygen tanks, no more death rattle breathing. Peace filled the home. We held his hands for several more minutes and leaned into the moment. God used my Dad’s last breaths to bring reconciliation between us.
How do you say goodbye to a parent? That is something I still ponder. Did I tell him enough about how much I loved him? Did I convey all I wanted to say? Did I provide him the care he needed from me? Will I regret all the things that I forgot to ask him about? How would I know what to ask? Who prepares you for this? I'm winging it here.
I didn't know at the time he contacted me by phone asking me to leave work and be with him, that it was the last week of his life. He needed me at his side. He begged me to come and be with him as soon as possible. Did he know death was near?
He was having daily panic attacks about random things. He kept worrying about Mom's state of mind. He voiced his fears about this cancer that had taken over and significantly changed his body. He asked me if I would clean him if he was no longer able to manage bowel movements. Of course I would I never gave it a second thought. I reassured him in those last few days.
I didn't know it was going to be this hard. Physically, his body was hard to look at. His eyes sunk into his head and his color was yellow and ashen. I didn't know he was going to resist the care I offered, or pull off his oxygen and tell me he wished he had died the night before.
He stopped taking his oral meds. I could not convince him to take them otherwise. He was very uncomfortable, his movements and facial expressions demonstrated this. He didn't cooperate; it was the worst version of my father I had ever observed. I didn't recognize him.
Am I doing all the right things? Could I have done more? During the last two days of his life, I had not slept; I stayed at his side around the clock. How much longer did we have? Could I continue to care for him? I was starting to notice my body trembling, I was emotionally fragile doing all I could to hold it together to be strong for my mother and for him. It was in those final hours of his life my sister arrived from Tucson. Dad was holding my hand when she walked in the door, upon hearing her voice he squeezed my hand twice acknowledging her arrival.
I remember her embracing me as she greeted me. The tears began to pour out of my eyes and I began to sob, my body trembling. I cannot remember a time I had sobbed like this, if ever. She held me tight and provided the reassurance I needed affirming me of her willingness to help.
My heart was breaking for the inevitable loss approaching and rejoicing for the arrival of support and strength.
In his last hours of existence, we had resorted to sublingual administration of medication. Using a dropper we gave Dad his medication under the tongue or in the side of his mouth. We only had two medications to work with, Morphine for pain and Lorazepam for anxiety. Carrie, my sister sent me to bed as she could see I was a shell of a human. I slept 3 hours, I was grateful as I had peace knowing she would care for him. Upon awakening, I recognized the sound of secretions in his airway; this was "the death rattle." It is the most disturbing and eerie sound. We knew his time was short. Mom was with us. We tried to make him as comfortable as possible. We played soft worship music we knew he enjoyed. We stayed near his bedside taking turns holding his hand, kissing his forehead, and telling him all the great things he was to us as a father and husband. We verbalized our reassurance to him of how we would take care of Mom when he was gone.
It was the eve of Memorial Day when he took his last breath around 8:55 pm. He had us promise him in the weeks beforehand we wouldn't cry upon his last breath. "I won't be able to handle it," He had said. So, we didn't cry. Actually, we were in awe of the peace that surrounded us in those minutes that followed. I have never felt that kind of tranquility. There was silence.
It was calming to our souls. We held each other and gave thanks to God. The suffering had ended.
Of all the hard things in life I have been through and experienced personally and professionally in the behavioral health field, this was one of the hardest for me.
In days to follow, we had learned from the Chaplain that we had done the right things to help Dad make this transition. It was comforting to hear and brought us great delight.
I thank God for giving me an opportunity to be there in those final days when he needed his family