The Night My Dad Died

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My Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer Christmas Eve 1986; he had less than eight weeks left. I got the call, “Come.” I flew out the next day, met my brother Jim and my uncle Bob at Midway airport and drove to Dubuque. My dad was still breathing, six siblings gathered and we sang hymns and watched. A night and day and night and day passed.

Although he was in a coma, Dad hung on, waiting for my brother Dan. When Dan and Val came, we sang, talked to my dad, and took turns napping, no longer able to hold our heads up.

When the nurse told us the end was imminent, Mary Ann (my stepmother), my siblings, and I  stood around his bed. We just had time to say ‘I love you’ when he exhaled his last breath. It was around two in the morning.

We collected our coats and scarves and trooped over to my dad’s house. Witnessing his death was profound; we needed time to process. So we lingered in the living room and told stories. All I remember about the next hour was how loud we guffawed. Every story ended in raucous laughter followed by awkward silence. Nothing was that funny…but laughter was a way to exhale pent-up emotion.

Eventually our need for sleep superseded all others. Down in the basement we lined up borrowed sleeping bags like cord wood: seven siblings and two spouses. Lights went out, we whispered good-nights, and rhythmic breathing began.

Not for me.

All I could think of was that Mary Ann was sleeping alone. We weren’t especially close; our relationship was more wary than warm. But that empty place in the bed beside her became the overarching tragedy in my sleep-deprived mind.

This impulse came to me. You should go sleep next to her.  I didn’t want to. I just wanted this episode over. You should at least offer.

I argued with myself. I might step on my brothers and sisters; the basement was pitch black. Just go and check on her.  I don’t want to!  Go!  No!

Finally, I picked up my pillow and tiptoed across the basement, trod with care up the steps, opened the door, took a breath, and faltered down the hall.

I tapped on her bedroom door and whispered, Mary Ann! Nothing. I took to hissing. Mary Ann! I rapped a little louder, but still no response. In my misguided trajectory, I had to make sure she wasn’t afflicted with insomnia.

I turned the doorknob centimeter by centimeter and bent down by her ear. Mary Ann, do you want me to sleep with you?

Huh? growled a male voice roused awake. He sat up. Yikes! My dad’s bedroom was occupied by Mary Ann’s sister and brother-in-law.  Sorry! I sputtered.

Heart exploding, I skedaddled across the house, danced down the steps, tripped across the room and dove into my sleeping bag, all thoughts of being helpful dissolved.

 

 

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The Last Verse

old_handThis post is dedicated to dear Sally W.,
who is singing her last verse with grace & peace.

One of the glories of old hymns is their last verse. Singing them was a weekly reminder that death would come, that life follows death, that we have promises on which to stand. The regular drip irrigation of those last verses watered our hope and confidence.

Here’s a few that I found in my hymnal.

Great things he has taught us, great things he has done,
and great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;
but purer and higher and greater will be
our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.

Through ev’ry period of my life your goodness I’ll pursue;
and after death, in distant worlds, the glorious theme renew.

E’en down to old age all my people shall prove
my sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
and when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.

He will keep me till the river rolls it waters at my feet:
then he’ll bear me safely over, made by grace for glory meet.

Jesus loves me, he will stay close beside me all the way:
if I love him, when I die he will take me home on high.

Now by this I’ll overcome—nothing but the blood of Jesus;
now by this I’ll reach my home—nothing but the blood of Jesus.

He will gather, he will gather the gems for his kingdom,
all the pure ones, all the bright ones, his loved and his own.

Then he’ll call us home to heaven, at his table we’ll sit down;
Christ will gird himself and serve us with sweet manna all around.

Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;
shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies;
heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee:
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

And when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil a life of joy and peace.

While I draw this fleeting breath, when mine eyelids close in death,
when I soar to worlds unknown, see thee on thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.

When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side;
songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee, I will ever give to thee.

And when my task on earth is done, when, by thy grace, the victory’s won
e’en death’s cold wave I will not flee, since God through Jordan leadeth me.

I’ll love thee in life, I will love thee in death;
and praise thee as long as thou lendest me breath;
and say, when the deathdew lies cold on my brow;
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

I’m so glad I learned to trust thee, precious Jesus, Savior, Friend;
and I know that thou art with me, will be with me to the end.

Jesus lives and death is now but my entrance into glory.
Courage, then, my soul, for thou hast a crown of life before thee;
thou shalt find thy hopes were just: Jesus is the Christian’s trust.

This and That

DSC_8975Perhaps if I can unravel some random thoughts, I might then clean my house.

End-of-life discussion: We recently had a conversation with a group of informed friends which has shoved its way into the front of my thoughts every day since. One book referenced was Jennifer Worth’s (of Call the Midwife fame) memoir In the Midst of Life. I want to blog about it once I’ve corralled my thoughts. Before that talk, my husband and I sat down to each fill out an Advance Directive, thinking we could accomplish this task in twenty minutes. Whoa!! We are different. Those ADs still sit on my desk….

Survivor: We’re having lunch with my mom’s brother, my one remaining uncle, next week. He is sensible to the position he holds, as repository of family lore, and is actively sending me photos and information. He exudes good cheer and laughter, turning a pun, teasing himself, loving life. When we talked on the phone this morning, he was preparing to plant potatoes.

Hunger Games:  Curt’s co-worker really wanted Curt to listen to HG so they could talk about them. In a throwback to the early days of marriage, we have cleaned up the kitchen (or not), turned the lights off, sat on a comfortable chair in our living room, and listened to a few chapters each night.

Later one night, we enumerated the allusions to the Roman Empire. Curt then said one word: Panem. But he thought he was saying: Pan Am.
I, thinking how fun it was to have pillow talk in Latin, replied et circenses.
Huh? a perplexed husband.
Bread and circuses, I expatiated.
What??
You said “bread”, I said “and circuses.” You know! Rome! Entertain the masses.
Babe, I thought the city was Pan Am...like Pan American, or something.
And the laughter from that exchange was propelled me through the week.

Follow the threads and look what you find: I’m slogging through Stephen Ambrose’s Eisenhower Volume II: The President. Confused, I needed to differentiate the Dulles brothers: Foster Dulles—the DC airport is named after him—was Ike’s Secretary of State, and his brother, Allen Dulles, was head of the CIA. I’m forever curious about famous people’s children. Foster Dulles’ son, Avery Dulles, (1918-2008) was a Jesuit priest who has piqued my interest. His farewell “speech” (read by another because of his loss of speech) includes these words:

Suffering and diminishment are not the greatest of evils but are normal ingredients in life, especially in old age. They are to be expected as elements of a full human existence.

Well into my 90th year I have been able to work productively. As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels, grateful for the loving and skillful care I receive and for the hope of everlasting life in Christ. If the Lord now calls me to a period of weakness, I know well that his power can be made perfect in infirmity. “Blessed be the name of the Lord!”