For in the end; above all else, there should be peace.
During the fall of 2005, I traveled home to the family farm where I was raised, knowing I probably would not have another chance to see my family before I deployed, and to bow hunt during the archery deer season. When I saw my father, I was shocked. I was sure his health was slipping. He looked thin and pale, and moved slowly. At times, I saw him struggle with his balance, and I noticed he wasn’t eating very much. I insisted that he make an appointment with his doctor before I left. I left with a sort of nagging feeling in the back of my mind; feeling that his condition was probably serious. Later the following week, I received a phone call from my mother. The worst of my fears were to materialize. He was diagnosed with an abdominal aortic aneurism and a tumor in his pancreas, which the doctor suspected was cancer. My wife is a nurse, and we knew what this meant. The following are excerpts from a journal I kept while I was home helping my family care for him.
December 3, 2005, 0200h, Ohio University Medical Center, Columbus, Ohio Doan Hall
I wish we would talk about this. Dad and I have talked about everything else and avoided the real subject, as though we don’t know that Dad is dying. I can’t bring myself to broach the subject with him.
When the doctor entered the room, I could tell by the look on his face and his demeanor that he was there to deliver sad news. He started by asking Dad what he was expecting to hear about the biopsy. No doubt a technique he has been taught in some sort of class dealing with bedside grief counseling or he has read in some book. Dad answered by saying, “I imagine you’re going to tell me I have cancer.” He said, “I’m afraid you’re right. The biopsy came back positive, and I have to tell you that this particular cancer is a really tough one to treat. The surgeon will talk to you as well, but removing the tumor from where it is in the pancreas is not going to be possible without a major operation and may not give you any more time, or if it does, it may not be that much time at all.” Dad asked, “How long will this process take?” He said, “Five to six months. Maybe with chemo a little longer, but only a little.” Dad simply said, “Okay, I understand.” The doctor said he was very sorry to have to tell Dad this news. And Dad once again said, “Its okay. If it’s my time, then it’s my time.”
I was impressed at how brave Dad was through it all. He said he was sure they had done all they could and, being seventy-six years old, he’d had a fairly long life, and if it was his time to go, he’d “just have to go.”
I felt as if I should say something, maybe ask the surgeon something, but I was unable to speak. I felt numb. Almost paralyzed.
The doctor said once again that with medicine and surgery, they might be able to buy a little more time. Dad said there was probably no point in all of that. So the doctor said to talk it over with the family and see what the surgeon had to say. And with that, he shook our hands, said he’d see us in the morning, and left. I couldn’t help but think that he had, in ten or so minutes, told my father he would soon die and was gone.
In the cold midnight air, the wind stung my face as I stood outside the hospital. It was uncomfortably cold, and yet, it felt good to be outside. The brisk fresh air was invigorating, and the quiet was what I needed. Dad was asleep, and it felt good to have some quiet time to gather my thoughts and try to prepare myself for another round of medical jargon and emotional turmoil.
December 3, 2005, 1400h
This morning, all the doctors and surgeons have been by to talk to us. The vascular surgeon told us they may be able to insert a stint to repair the abdominal aortic aneurism, but not without some risks. The pancreas surgeon told us of a procedure called a Whipple, where they remove most of the pancreas, duodenum, gallbladder, and part of the stomach and re-route certain important plumbing to give some gastro relief and perhaps extend Dad’s life. The surgery is major and not without serious risks. I don’t know if Dad will survive both operations or not. He is seventy-six and has heart issues from a previous heart attack. At this point, I don’t even know if he is going to allow them to try.
And still, Dad and I have not really discussed the inevitable. I believe we must find a way to be open and frank and make some decisions. He watches television and acts as if he’s here for something minor unless I bring up the operation. However, he did say, by way of a non sequitur, “By the way, while I think of it, I don’t want a lot of money spent on funeral arrangements. Just get the cheapest of everything.” He then elaborated, “There’s no sense in spending a lot of money on something that’s just going to be put in the ground” (Dad’s logic).
Monday, December 19, 2005, 2200h
This night finds me once again in Ohio, this time at the farm, with Dad. I left him at the hospital in Columbus last week, went home to work another week, and returned to spend a week with him at home before he goes to have the big operation. He has been home a week now and shows no signs of improvement. He is very weak and requires assistance to do just about everything.
I’ve been here a few days with him and dread having to leave him in another day or two. I’m afraid I might not see him alive again. It’s hard to think about leaving. We’ve had a good visit and, just tonight, discussed his last wishes at some length. I believe him to be in the acceptance stage of this process; however, there is still some hope for more time. The problem is that he may not be strong enough for the operation, and afterwards, he may not ever make it to his own home again.
He only eats two or three bites at each mealtime. I try to make him Jell-O, toast, and other foods I know he likes, but he just can’t seem to get much down. I worry that, at this pace, he may not have the operation and won’t last much longer. We bring him fresh drinks and food, which all go virtually untouched. His strength is not increasing, nor is his weight.
He is just about always cold, so we have the furnace set pretty high. He can visit for a while, but then falls fast asleep. When he sleeps, I go outside for fresh air and to collect my thoughts. It’s a sharp, hard kind of cold night tonight, eight degrees, and everything is frozen outside. The ground is hard and the night is still, with no human traffic or animals venturing out in the night air. And as I stand outside and listen to the quiet, it strikes me that winter is a time for dying. The trees, the grass, and all vegetation and insects lay waiting for the arrival of spring and the yearly rebirth of life, but only the hardiest of them will see the spring. I hope my father is here then to see it once more, but I doubt if that will be the case.
January 3, 2006
The New Year finds me at home with Connie and the boys. When I call Ohio and talk to my family, it seems as if every day brings a different report. One day last week, my mother told me Dad was doing better, then two days later, she told me that all improvement has ceased and he seems to be withering away. I call Dad each day to see how he’s feeling, and it changes that quickly. He can even go from feeling “pretty good” to being too sick to continue talking during the course of our conversation. I’ll be returning next week when I complete another week-long hitch at work. I want to spend some more time with him before he goes.
January 13, 2006, 1156h
I’m back on the farm with Dad tonight. I’ve been gone three weeks this time, and he has declined considerably. He sleeps fitfully, and at times, his breathing seems labored. He moans a lot and can’t seem to get comfortable. He has problems with incontinence, which humiliates him. He seems to be struggling just to hang on. He seems miserable. He told me he is tired. Tired of laying, taking medications, feeling sick, and not being able to eat. I can’t imagine what he is going through. I am scared for him. At forty-four, I’m not ready to face death and leave my loved ones forever. I hope that at seventy-six, it’s easier, but I don’t know that. He spent some time today telling me what he wants done with certain things and advising me of money he has stashed in different places around the house. My father grew up during the Great Depression and has never really trusted banks. He insisted that the Social Security Administration send him an actual check each month and not deposit his money electronically like everyone else’s. He would then cash his check and only put a portion of it in his checking account and keep the rest in cash because “the government didn’t need to know how much money I have.” As though the government was watching to see what an old man did with his few hundred dollars each month. It was kind of funny, but one has to understand the things that he, as a poor child, went through, growing up during the Depression without a father around, in a house with nine children.
As I watch him sleep, I look at his frail body and his labored breathing, and I know his time to go is near. I wonder how much longer he can hang on, and I realize how much I’ll miss him.
June 18, 2006, Father’s Day
Dad died on May 3, 2006. Tonight, as I sit in the barracks in Ft. Hood, Texas, mobilized for deployment to Iraq, I sorely miss our late-night telephone conversations. Tonight is especially hard for me, and I would like to talk to him. I believe our conversations sort of kept me grounded. And, by the way, we never did really talk about how he felt about dying. The truth is, to my regret, I lacked the courage to try to get him to open up and talk about it. I guess I was afraid of upsetting him.
I don’t know why I couldn’t write any more during the months preceding his death. I sat many nights watching him sleep, with my computer on my lap, but I only sat and stared at the blank screen in front of me and never pressed one key.
But it was the same each time I went home to see him. He would be a little weaker and thinner. Sometimes more accepting, sometimes fearful, always quiet. My mother, sister, and brother were also becoming more exhausted than they realized. I saw changes in each of them, while Dad’s condition continued to deteriorate. Dad, I believe, saw it, too. For me, removed from the situation every other week, their wariness became more apparent at each visit. And I was proud of them. As their acceptance of the situation grew, and their patience with one another dwindled (understandably so), I observed each of them go through the stages of grief (denial, anger, remorse, sadness, and acceptance) in their own way; but all the while, they took diligent care of Dad, as he struggled with his own regrets. My fear now is that a certain number of strands of the family fiber that binds us are forever removed, and I see us as a once tightly woven family quilt now starting to become unraveled. It’s surprising. I always thought of my mother as the main source of our family cohesiveness, but Dad’s death seemed to open a Pandora’s Box from which fear and mistrust poured out. And, as in the mythological yarn, only hope remains inside the box. My hope, now, is that my brother, sister, and I will take care of what’s left of the family quilt, and, for now, my mother will continue to be that fiber to which we all cling.
As for my father, I take comfort in Mathew 18:13. (Maybe one of God’s sheep returned in his final hours.) He told Mom he made his peace with God before he died, and I hope he is in a better place with those he knew and loved.
And finally, there is something I’ve taken away from all of this. I will always ensure that, when I die, those I love will have a clear path to follow. For in the end, above all else, there should be peace.