Grandpa is one tough cookie. You see, we thought he was going down for the count – literally. Early afternoon, the day after he was admitted to the hospital with a urinary tract infection, his blood pressure began to fall. I blubbered to the palliative team doctor, “I see where this is headed!” He put his arm around me and offered premature condolences. As long as he thought Grandpa was dying, he was my best friend.
“Your dad can die right here in the hospital,” he comforted. Only it wasn’t comforting to me at all. All I could think about was how long and far Grandpa and I had come together and how much he wanted to die at home, and now the palliative care doctor was determining a different outcome than what we had hoped for.
Later that afternoon when I walked into Grandpa’s room, his eyes popped open and he said in his best opportunistic, medical-crisis, demanding tone, “When am I going to eat?!?”
One of the Hospice nurses who overheard his question gave me a thumbs up, saying, “Dying people don’t ask for food!” Needless to say, I breathed a sigh of relief. And after learning from the head Hospice nurse that 97% of elderly patients go home to die, I decided to bring Grandpa home, too. Why not? What’s the worst that could happen? Grandpa could either pass away in the comfort of his own home, or live to write another day!
So while a stream of different medical professionals tried to predict if Grandpa was getting ready to expire, he proved them wrong again. Just home six days from a ten day hospital stay where he was nearly starved to death because they couldn’t get a feeding tube down his nose (he has a deviated septum because he shoved a pencil up his nose when he was a kid), he is already eating eggs and potatoes (his all time favorite breakfast foods), and writing on his book at his computer.
I am astounded, but not surprised. Grandpa is in the resurrection business! As long as he’s not in pain, or dying, he’d rather be living.Wouldn’t we all?
Like an ill-timed harbinger, I was searching for words to hold onto Grandpa the afternoon he passed away. I had gone to my bedroom to finish a blog I was writing about “As Long as He is Still Here” but I didn’t realize he was actually going to die that very afternoon. If I had just known how close he was to leaving this world, I would have stayed in his room for the rest of the day.
Earlier, a CNA from home health helped me bathed him for what was to be the last time. As we applied lotion to his delicate butterfly-like skin, I asked her about the state of his overall condition. Although, I’m sure she knew exactly what was happening, she remained cryptic and non-committal.
“Do you see the way his skin looks?” I asked her, referring to the bluish tint of his feet.
“Yes,” she said. “But I’m not saying he’s goin’. Oh, no, that’s up to the Lord!”
And then, as an afterthought, a revelation of something that might be holding him back from making the Grand Departure, she asked, “Have you released him?”
“Oh, yes!” I laughed. “Multiple times! But I can do it again!”
Over the last few months, I had told Grandpa on several occasions that is was okay to go, that Jesus was waiting for him, and heaven was going or be the most beautiful place he has ever seen. Every time we would talk about it, he would close his eyes and smile with such yearning on his face.
Releasing him again, I leaned over the bed and spoke loudly into his good ear, “You can go now, Dad. You can go!” It was finally time to say goodbye. Of all the days that were written in the book of life for Grandpa, the hours, the minutes, the seconds, today, September 15th, 2015 was the day that would end his final chapter here and begin the next in Eternity.
Against all odds we fought the good fight and we won! Love had made a way for us to care for him at the most vulnerable time of his life. Love had conquered a myriad of health crisis’ and old-age maladies. Love had covered a multitude of minor aggravations and petty grievances that would have landed Grandpa back in the nursing home if he hadn’t been a changed man. Love had triumphed!
And in June, Grandpa hadn’t passed away in the hospital as some of the palliative care team hoped he would. When they thought his life was not worth living anymore, that he would never write again, I knew better. Just a couple of days after he was released from the hospital, he was back at his computer writing the sequel to his children’s book about Yeti, The Adventures of the Abominable Snowman (a Christian version, of course), right where he had left off. He had purpose right up to the end, and now the end was finally here.
As if seeing the true state of his condition for the first time, the CNA commented, “Oh, his eyes are set!” But she didn’t tell me what that meant, that death was eminent within a couple of days or even a couple of hours. I could have used a little head’s up that I was running out of time. I wish she had just said, “It won’t be long now.” But CNA’s aren’t supposed to give a diagnosis.
Who needs a diagnosis, anyway, right? But think of it from my perspective. What if I had run out to Walgreen’s that afternoon to pick up a prescription, or what if I was standing in the produce isle at Kroger with a bunch of bananas in my hand when I received the call from my husband, “Your Dad is dead!” After all the long, long hours of turning him in the night, dressing his wounds, dispensing his medicine, feeding him and suctioning him him out, I’m so thankful I was just down the hallway and not all over town running errands!
That’s why I went to my bedroom to write in the first place, so I could release the pent-up emotions that can only be expressed when your heart is breaking in the moment. He was still here, but it wouldn’t be for long, and how would I remember everything I had done while caring for him? I even wrote on the top of one of the charts I made to keep track of the tasks I had to do every day, “I never want to forget what I did in this room!”
And then, as I was in my bedroom trying to find the words, the thought came to release him again. I walked to his bedroom, and lowering the railing down on his bed, I closed my eyes. I could almost see through the thin veil from this life to the next. The words on my lips gave testimony as seeing through a glass dimly, but now face to face: “Dad, you can go now. Jesus is standing at the gate, the door is open, and Grandma Reid is waiting on the other side!” Jesus, the gate, the door, my mother–all there, and all just as real as if I was going there too. I kissed his forehead and put the railing back up and went back to my bedroom to write.
That’s why I took a writing class on memoir last year in the first place, the year of long hospital stays and recuperations. Like a fragile seedling, fingering its way up through the dark loamy earth as it reaches for the warmth of the sun, I was having a hard time pushing the words up and out of the pain and grief and into the light. I needed a reason to write beyond my blog to keep me going. I needed someone to assure me that words can bloom even when they don’t want to germinate, when the conditions for growth are hostile.
Somehow that day, in His infinite mercy, God got me up and out of my chair and back into Grandpa’s room before he left us. As I walked down the hallway, I passed my husband who was coming up from the basement. I commented, “I think I’ll sing a hymn to Grandpa.”
“That sounds like a great idea,” he agreed.
I went back to the living room to get the hymnal, but before I did, I thought I better call my sister and tell her if she wanted to see Grandpa one last time she should come as soon as possible. I went into the kitchen and called, but there was no answer. I walked back to Grandpa’s room and decided to take his blood pressure. It was 70 over 35. That was the lowest I had ever seen it, and I knew from reading about the last stages of death that he was finally going.
I went back to the kitchen and called my sister again, but there was still no answer. I filled a glass with water and headed back to his room. I sat down next to his bed, and as I opened the hymnal, it fell to the hymn “Take My Life and Let It Be.” I was just about to begin singing when I noticed a change in the atmosphere. I looked at Grandpa’s face, and then at his chest. Instead of seeing the familiar rise and fall, I saw nothing at all. I called to my husband who was in the kitchen. “Honey, come here. I think Grandpa just died!” I took his blood pressure and there was no reading. I took it again. “He’s gone,” I said in amazement. “He’s gone.”
And so, Grandpa passed from this life to the next in the peace and comfort of his own home, in his own bed where he had conquered the monsters of sickness and sorrow, and the grief of letting go of all you hold dear to embark on the final journey homeward.
Sometimes I think he was holding on for me–I know he was. It was a sacred passage and a testimony of God’s love and provision for him in his final years.
Early in the morning, when my defenses are down and my level of consciousness hovers between slumber and wakefulness, I grieve for my father. How much longer will he be with us? Uncertainty churns in the pit of my stomach. It’s the same feeling I experienced when I first learned that “Grandpa,” at the age of 89, would become my family’s sole responsibility. That was over six years ago, and it’s hard to comprehend the end of the journey is in sight.
Is he still alive? I wonder as I walk down the hallway. With trepidation, I open the door and peek in on him. Anyone who cares for an elderly person knows that sinking feeling well – a dance with death. It’s one of the occupational hazards of caregiving, and can’t be avoided.
I can’t tell if he’s breathing from the doorway, but as I walk closer to his bed, I see his chest slowly rise and fall. He’s still here, and I breathe a sigh of relief! As long as he is here, I can kiss his warm forehead and hold his hand. As long as he is here, I can say, “I love you, Dad,” and see him faintly mouth the words, “I love you, too.” And as long as he is here, I can prolong the overwhelming sadness I know I’ll feel when I stand all alone in his room.
My husband and I joke around and ask one another, “How’s the patient in 1A?” “Still here!” is our standard reply. But one day soon, we will have to end the game of charades. It’s only a matter of time before Grandpa passes away, but it seems like he’s been dying for days on end. What’s taking so long, God? I whisper into the poignant air, a rhetorical question, requiring no answer.
Like a circus acrobat grasping the bar of a flying trapeze, my emotions swing wildly between hanging on and letting go. I think I’m ready for Grandpa’s departure, but I know I’m only fooling myself. After being his primary caregiver for so long, how will I transition back to my regularly scheduled life, the one I led before his needs took precedence over mine? The ebb and flow life will surely continue, and yet, I feel caught somewhere between two alternate realities–his and mine. Where does his story end and mine begin? Or is his story now my story, too?
As I walk intimately with Grandpa through the last stages of death, I never know what the day will bring. But I do know the little old man whom I have protected and nursed beyond what I even thought was possible is making the transition from this life to Life Eternal. And even though it hurts my heart to watch him go on ahead, I can’t help but think of what a sacred privilege it has been to have cared for him, not merely with heart-felt sentiment, but through thousands upon thousands of tangible acts of love.
Looking over his daily routine, I calculate that we have transferred Grandpa from bed to wheelchair, and wheelchair to bed at least 13,416 times. We have dressed and undressed him over 4360 times, changed his diapers around 8760 times, and fed him at least 6570 meals. Since he came home from the hospital in June, I have had to turn him twice in the night, every night, for the last three months–a labor of love, and the work of a full-blown nursing staff. Somehow knowing it’s all coming to end, I find the supernatural strength I need to see it through.
I take a pink foam sponge on a stick and slather minty mouth gel all over it. I swish it around his mouth and hope the cool tingly taste brings him comfort. Then I apply lip balm with a cotton swab to his chapped lips, rubbing them gently until they are smooth again. Grandpa’s not able to eat or drink by mouth anymore. Parkinson’s has robbed him of the ability to swallow and talk. A feeding tube supplies all of his medicine and nutrition, but it just isn’t the same, and it isn’t enough. He’s dropped 40 pounds since his hospital stay for a urinary tract infection. He’s a mere shadow of his former self.
Over the last few days, he has become increasingly more agitated in late afternoon or early evening. His doctor tells me it is called Sundowner’s Syndrome, likely caused by a disruption to his internal biological clock. Mostly in a catatonic state during the day, as early evening approaches he begins to fuss and fidget, pulling his covers all over the place. He grimaces as if in pain but if you ask him if he hurts anywhere, he says no. This bizarre behavior goes on for hours and is very unsettling to witness. I observed the same symptoms with my mother before she died, so at least I was prepared mentally for what was to come. Little did I know the Lord was preparing me way ahead of time to know what death looked like and to not to be afraid of it.
I crush an anti-anxiety pill and pump it into his food tube. It will take a while for it to “kick in.” As the restless movements increase, I tell him to relax. A look of peace immediately covers his face as he consciously makes the effort, but in just a few moments, the agitation returns. I sing a worship song and he begins tapping his blanket, keeping time. Suddenly, the tension ceases. He listens and let’s go, and then, over and over again he raises his hands to praise the Lord.
By God’s grace, my husband and I have managed to overcome each new medical obstacle until what has been so confounding has become normal routine. And of course, just when we think we know what we’re doing, the routine changes. How many times has Grandpa’s care morphed in response to a physical ailment he is experiencing, and how many times we have morphed with it. And now he’s morphing again from this life to the next.
When I check on him before I go to bed, Grandpa is awake and resting comfortably. I smile through the semi-darkness, and ever so sweetly he smiles back at me. Suddenly, his eyes begin to dart all over the room as if he is seeing someone or something else, but then his gaze settles on me again. I smile and then he smiles. I lay my head on his chest and he puts his hands around my head and strokes my hair. I begin to cry, there on his chest in the dark . . .
In the morning, Grandpa is still here, but barely. It’s okay, though. More than earthy sustenance, he thirsts for streams of Living Water. Soon he shall have his fill. More than anything, he wants to go home to heaven, and I am envious he’s going on without me, truly, I am.
I’m not afraid to see Grandpa die. He and I welcome it as a miraculous transition from sickness and sorrow to everlasting joy. Soon he will be free. . . and so will I.
I can’t look. One day he’s dying and the next day he resurrects. The only thing is, his body isn’t in full working mode, his fingers are bent at an unnatural angel incompatible with the keyboard. I find it painful to stand there and watch him fumble around, hitting every key except the ones that make up words.
“Grandpa,” I say loudly, “stay on the alphabet keys! Stay away from all of these keys on the right, and use the ones that make up the words!”
He wanted to work on his book, but I wasn’t about to risk getting him out of bed to do it. He’s too fragile, and I’m pretty sure his wheelchair days are over, so I put his monitor and keyboard on top of the hospital table and wheeled it over to the bed. That’s when I realized it was all over. That’s when I knew I had witnessed Grandpa’s last request to work on his book.
Have you ever thought about how many keys there are on a typical computer keyboard have nothing to do with storytelling? Well, he pretty much figured out every stroke it takes to bring up a window that has nothing to do with what he’s working on. I have helped him get back on track several times, but I am not playing technical assistant and nurse maid to a dying author of any acclaim. Even if he was famous, it would be of no use, he can’t type.
I am totally miffed. How many people at the age of 95 are asking to go on their computers, anyway, especially when they are on their death beds? Even dying isn’t sacred anymore . . . or maybe is is. He wanted to do what he loved the most, up to the last minute.
This morning I had another one of those talks of release with Grandpa.
“Are you going on ahead of me?” I asked him.
He smiled a big denture-less smile.
“You bugger,” I said.