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.