SAYING GOODBYE WHEN YOUR PARENT IS DYING

Anyone could see that the doctor’s mouth was definitely moving, and in response to the difficult message he was tasked with delivering, he shifted his feet as if looking for a more comfortable position. Taking another second to evaluate my lack of verbal response, the doctor tried once again with a more direct approach.

“Your father-in-law will not be regaining consciousness and will more than likely not even make it through the night. I think its time you reached out to any family or friends you might like to bring in to say their goodbyes. Is there someone we can call to be here with you?”

I had heard the doctor’s words, and I wanted to reply, but my own mouth seemed unable to formulate a response. Slowly stretching my neck just an inch to the right, I was able to catch another glimpse of my dad’s swollen belly over the doctor’s shoulder. Rising up like a mountain from his hospital bed, his face temporarily blocked from my view, the doctor’s voice continued to drone on in my ears as my father-in-law’s labored breathing forced his chest to rise and fall in an uneven response.

As the doctor turned to speak to the nurse that had suddenly appeared at his side, he stopped the conversation long enough to offer me a brief condolence before rushing off to another emergency that was demanding his immediate attention.

I had felt that my father-in-law was going to die for the past few days. This hospital stay had been a gradual decline as we had apparently come to the end of the road where further treatment just wasn’t going to improve his condition. His quality of life, a term the staff loved to quote, had degraded down to almost nothing.  

“This is it,” I mumbled to no one in particular, shuffling my feet as I slowly moved back to his bedside.

Everyone always said how small the dying appeared, but my dad was so bloated and unbelievably swollen that the skin was cracking between his fingers and toes. Total organ failure, especially the shutdown of his kidneys and lungs had resulted in his body retaining every ounce of fluid pumped in through his I.V.’s. He needed hydration to deliver the meds, but the fluid was ultimately drowning every cell, making the tissue in his body bloat to unrecognizable proportions.  

I made the recommended calls and the family began their pilgrimage to his bedside. They cried, they said their goodbyes, and then once again after what felt like hours of uncomfortable interactions, I was alone, waiting for my husband to make his way back from his northern jobsite to join me at his father’s bedside.

The nurses repeatedly offered me beverages and sandwiches, as I’d been keeping watch for a day and a half. Someone had even brought me an afghan for warmth and a collection of magazines, but they all remained untouched.

My mother-in-law had been too weak to continue holding the vigil, her own health now in jeopardy with the trauma of her husband’s impending death. My sister-in-law had also taken her young family home to rest, promising to return later that night and keep me company. I was alone again with the continual rasping as dad fought for each labored breath.

Raised Christian, I pondered why a devout man like my father-in-law was being forsaken, left to suffer in death while the local prisons were filled with inmates enjoying good health and extended old age. With no answers available to me, my mind began wandering to alternate subjects.

How would my mother-in-law continue in her home without dad, the sole driver and absolute head of the household? Should I offer my home to her? Would she sell the house? Would she even want to live with me while her son was out of town at least three of the four weeks in a month?   

My own adult children suddenly arrived, deeply saddened at seeing their grandfather suffering in a hospital bed, acutely aware that these were some of the last moments they’d ever see him alive.

We consoled each other as they tentatively inquired as to who had visited, taking the time to read all the cards and flowers that had collected on the narrow window sills of the hospital room.

“Can he feel anything?” my daughter suddenly whispered to me, gently stroking the purplish-bruises adorning his puffy hands.

“No,” I shook my head. “The doctor told me he won’t be regaining consciousness,” I repeated, having obviously ingested some of what I’d been told.

The time continued on, and after many hours, I finally convinced my children that sitting and waiting all night wasn’t going to benefit anyone. They reluctantly agreed, tears spilling from their eyes as they both returned home to their own families to await my call.

By early morning, dad’s breathing had considerably slowed, and after a visit by both a minister and the hospital’s priest, I steadied myself for the worst, sure that his strength would give out at anytime.

Surprisingly, he held on, and just as the nursing staff began their shift change, a flood of visitor’s intent on paying their respects on their way to work began to fill the room. Some immediate family, other’s friends from church, everyone asked the same questions and offered the same condolences.

When dad finally did draw his last breath, we were once again alone. I didn’t cry, I just squeezed his hand for the last time and rose from  my chair, intent on finding a nurse to confirm my suspicions.

As the nurse confirmed his passing, she slowly began unhooking the tubes, mindful to not remove the pieces connected directly to his body before the doctor was able to sign off on his death.

Relegated to the hallway as the staff continued to clean up my dad for his final viewing, I made a couple of calls, aware that the ‘death tree’ would definitely reach out it’s branches toward those I didn’t directly reach.

I was right, and within an hour or two, the room and immediate hallway were starting to fill with family and friends. Some who hadn’t even bothered to visit him for months prior found it strangely acceptable to visit at his death.   

Prayers mixed with tears as the obvious questions began to float in whispers around the room. Where would mom live after the funeral, and had all dad’s final wishes been recorded before his death? How would they fit his body into one of his suits, and who would be the pallbearers? Every visitor asking a more probing question than the last.

By the time I made it home that night from my mother-in-law’s house, I was exhausted, yet I chose to sit up and wait for my husband’s arrival. Finally positioned with a glass of wine in my favorite chair, I began reliving the experience through a flood of warm tears.

Although I had been present for nearly every moment of my dad’s ensuing death, I hadn’t experienced any religious or momentous revelations. I never witnessed his soul or his essence leaving his body, and at no time did I feel a sense of relief wash over me.

I loved the man dearly, yet his death was just that, an ending. It appears that life is when we feel enjoyment and begin to tally our accomplishments. Death is just that, the end. It wasn’t cathartic, or conscious expanding. I never felt his spirit move through me, or any religious confirmation that his life had been worthy of god’s love. It was just an end to a life well lived by a loving and family orientated man.

I’m glad that my father-in-law knew I loved him in life, because waiting for a parent’s deathbed to vow through tears that they meant the world to you is an obvious risk. My father-in-law had been unconscious for days before his eventual death; and looking for confirmation of reciprocated love or forgiveness for any wrongdoings, would have been disappointing and ultimately futile.

As a proud member of The Fifty Candles Club, I am going to make a renewed effort to tell the people in my life that I love them, and to let them know how much they mean to me on a regular basis. A deathbed is just that, a bed. It’s not a place to pin all our hopes and dreams on some magical forgiveness or reconciliations. It’s the end, and life should be taken full advantage of long before the doctor signs the death certificate.

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