It’s Sunday morning and the front paper is mine. My nighttime caregiver awakened me at 5:45 a.m. saying she needed help getting my Dad to the john, which takes two people to do safely. Just a few months ago, I would have gloried in having the paper to myself for 90 minutes.
Until this winter, I rose every morning at 7:30 a.m., made coffee and stepped out on the front porch to retrieve the paper, quickly noting the weather before brushing off the grime caused by runoff from the planter. I devoured the headlines of the New York Times, knowing that Dad would latch onto it as soon as he came out for breakfast. I was jealous of these few moments alone, when I was in control of my time and my paper, if only for 20 minutes.
Then I heard it: the snap of the brake release on his walker, the slow sibilant shuffle on the wood floor, the clink of the lever that flushed the john.
But on the days when 8 a.m. came and went with quiet, I wondered, “Is this the day?”
Fifty years after the first of Dad’s three heart attacks, I started every day steeled against the possibility that I would find Dad dead and that he would not awaken again, not ever.
I feel awfully small for that little jealousy over the paper. The prospect of losing Dad soon is no longer possibility or probability. It’s near certainty. (When you’re talking about a man who has survived Iwo Jima, three heart attacks, three open hearts and three strokes, you learn not to place bets on prognosis.)
Yesterday I read through the booklet that Sutter Hospice gives you when you are admitted, “As the End of Life Nears: A Caregiver’s Guide.” I read this:
As your loved one begins to accept his or her own mortality, you may notice that they start to withdraw physically and emotionally from the ‘outside’ world. A person who once loved television and the newspapers may cease to enjoy these activities. In addition, he/she may not want to interact with people. You may even notice a steady withdrawal from people the patient loves most. Withdrawal from the outside world is a natural part of the dying process…. (H)e/she will most likely begin to sleep more…. This is a normal process and even though your loved one is asleep, important work is being done on the ‘inside’ in preparation of the transition from this life.
I wrote to my friend Jim, “I have been worrying about him sleeping too much and becoming dehydrated. You’ve written all those great words about the descent/ascent, the bridge, etc., and I took it in but I don’t think I really thought I was there now. But that’s were we are, isn’t it? He is withdrawing. It isn’t just my brothers who have to let go. It’s me.”
And Jim responded:
Sleeping is sweet. Think about how treasured one’s naps are. It is just his biological body adjusting and slowing down. It is about letting himself accept his body doing what it needs to do so his spirit can be set free. Honey, it is the way for each of us. You are providing an environment and space for him to to do this without judgment or demands.
It is NOT about letting go. It’s about telling him he can fly to where he is meant to go, and that you will never let go of him in your heart. I promise you he will be in your heart until the day your spirit treks along with his.
It’s about loving him so he can let go of this human experience.
Betsy, of course you can let him be born anew into eternity. You let your kids be born into this world. You’re helping him be born again. It is not easy; it is not without labor pains.
He is withdrawing not from you but from this reality, so he can be in another one and still be very alive in you.
Stop picking on yourself. Just be present; open your heart to everything non-rational, and be open to him claiming his own eternal destiny. Your heart will break: love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation. But our faith suggests Easter is an ever present reality, as he will be for you the rest of your life.
While you sleep, Dad, I’ll read the paper, but I’ll be thinking of you in your dreams, flying to heaven.