I spent this past week watching my husband's father die. We flew in on Saturday. Bud died on Tuesday morning. The hours passed both incredibly slowly and amazingly fast. Time changes when you are waiting for death.
We flew in from all over the country and spent most of Saturday sitting in Bud's room talking. Bud lay there, eyes closed, lips smiling. We didn't try to talk to him too much. Instead, Steve, the youngest son, showed slides from the past on his computer. The family told stories about their childhood, and what they knew of their father's early days.
"Where did the expression 'Holy Balls' come from, anyway?" Rob, the oldest brother, asked.
"Wasn't that something dad shouted out when he dropped his pocketknife in an outhouse toilet?" Steve said. "He was on a camping trip with his parents."
"Oh, that's right!" Jim, my husband and the second son, said. "He told that story to our kids and they never forgot the expression. 'Holy Balls' will go down in infamy."
We all laughed. I looked over at Bud. His eyes remained closed, but his smile grew bigger. He had definitely heard us.
We spent the rest of the day telling stories. Bud spent the rest of the day listening. The smile never left his face. We tried to be circumspect. We told only funny stories. We left the room when we needed to talk about the dry logistics of death, things like funeral arrangements and travel plans. I've heard there are families that argue about property and wills right around the deathbed. This family wasn't like that. They tried to keep that smile on their dad's face.
The next day, though, it was obvious their dad was drifting away. Everyone except three of us—my husband, myself and Rob—had to return to their jobs. The hours ticked by slowly. We kept grabbing a brochure left by a nurse called "Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience" by Barbara Karnes. It looked pretty hokey, with a black-and-white drawing of a ship sailing out to sea on the cover. But this book soon became our bible. In fourteen pages, it described the whole process of dying, both physical and metaphysical, in a nutshell.
"Did you read page nine?" Rob asked us.
"The part about sleep apnea or irregular breathing?" I responded.
"Yeah, and the part about congestion. It says it's normal at this point. But we can help by turning him to the other side."
"Let's do it," Jim replied. Bud's breathing got easier.
We read that book over and over throughout the day. It made death feel as natural as birth. We said goodnight feeling fairly secure that Bud would make it through the night.
We were right. But the next morning, Bud seemed less peaceful, more agitated. The nurse began to administer morphine to relieve any possible pain. We each took turns saying goodbye. I don't know what Rob and Jim said, but I told Bud to rest easy. I also told him not to worry about the family he was leaving behind because, thanks to him and Betty, their mother, they were close-knit and would take care of each other. I thought my words would be a comfort to a man who put so much effort into staying in touch with his far-flung children and grandchildren. In fact, his own favorite words came from the ending of Garrison Keillor's new radio show: "Be well, do good work and keep in touch." Bud ended every letter and birthday card with those words.
After our goodbyes, we returned to our chairs around his bed. Actually, two of us got chairs; the third had to sit in Bud's wheelchair. There wasn't a lot of room in that place. We watched him and waited. I occasionally stroked his forehead. It felt strange to pat my father-in-law's forehead—we didn't have a touchy-feely relationship at all—but I used to be able to calm my kids that way and I thought it might calm Bud. Jim and Rob held his hand every now and then, also strange as they weren't a hand-holding family, either. But you do what you can. At one point, Jim said, "Well, Dad, at least you won't have to eat that ground-up stuff that looks like dog shit anymore." Bud came out of his reverie briefly and smiled. The retirement home had been pureeing his food for about a year. No wonder he gave up eating. We knew Bud was still at least partially with us because of that smile.
Later in the day, though, he seemed to leave us. He was breathing, but not responding to any of our words or actions. And he was breathing hard. I took another look at our new bible. "It says here, you guys, that 'fear and unfinished business are two big factors in determining how much resistance we put into meeting death.' Do you think Bud would want to see his pastor? Maybe he's afraid to die."
We were so dumb. Of course he would want to see his pastor. Bud and Betty had been lifelong church-goers. They didn't actually talk about God very much, but they believed. "What a great idea!" Rob said. "Why didn't we think of that before? I'll call him right now."
When we reached Pastor Lindsey by phone, he asked if we wanted him to come right away, or if it could wait until morning. We took one look at each other and said, practically in unison, "Come right away, please." We felt bad asking the poor guy to come out at night to see us, the non-church-goers. At the same time, we needed him. We didn't know how to tell Bud ourselves it was OK for him to die. Sometimes you need religion, and this was one of those times. "We thought it would be good to have you here," I stammered at the pastor when he finally arrived. "We thought Bud might be worried about leaving us, and we don't really have the vocabulary to say what might come next. We thought you would, though."
Pastor Lindsey obliged us by saying a prayer over Bud's bed. I don't remember the words, but I know he mentioned that Bud would be seeing his wife of 64 years, as well as his mother and father, very soon. When he finished the prayer—pretty much at the exact moment of us all saying "Amen"—Bud stopped breathing. Just like that. We waited, each one of us staring at Bud's chest. I glanced at Pastor Lindsey. He looked stunned. I looked back at Bud's chest. Still no movement. "Uh," I said. "He does have a bit of sleep apnea. It could just be that." Just then, Bud started breathing again. We all sighed in relief. We were ready for him to go, but not necessarily at that exact moment. To die at the same moment one says "Amen" was a bit too much evidence of God's hand for any of us.
Pastor Lindsey left, later followed by the three of us. Bud died about three hours after we left. I could feel badly about this, but I don't. He went when he was ready to go. Bud knew much of his family had been with him in the days before he died. He kept his eyes closed and listened to us as we honored the life he had led. He smiled a lot. At a certain point, he stopped smiling and went inward. I think he left us many hours before he actually died. I wonder if he could have died if we were still standing over his bed, holding his hands and stroking his forehead. At some point, we had to let him go. When we let go, he did too.
I'm so proud of my father-in-law and his family. And I'm proud of the part I took in helping him die. For someone who has never participated in deathbed rituals, I have to say I felt scared at the beginning. I didn't know what to say. I didn't know what to do. None of us did. But, in fact, death didn't turn out to feel any scarier than life. In fact, it was pretty peaceful in that room—at times, downright pleasant. And watching my father-in-law die, instead of frightening, turned out to be an honor and a privilege. He went peacefully, smiling, listening to the stories of his life, told by his children and grandchildren. You can't really beat that ending.