When you know someone you love is going to die it’s a strange thing. When you spend time with them they seem just the same, aside from their illness. You have to try and put it out of your mind, when you’re with them, that they won’t be with you for much longer. But it’s there, that knowledge, and it makes every moment with them so much more special. Every spoken word, every idiosyncrasy, is precious and treasured.
My Dad was a story-teller. His stories were famous. He would deliver them with enthusiasm, suspense, these incredible tales. When he was ill he would get tired and breathless, but he still told a few stories. I wanted to learn as much as I could about his life, so at every visit I would ask a question and type away as Dad slowly recalled and shared.
Over those months I wanted time to stand still. Work, family responsibilities, all these things vying for my attention. Like the sand in an egg-timer, it runs out fast, and doesn’t stop.
In the last few weeks he was really suffering. I offered to massage his feet. He was so grateful. Being bed-ridden meant muscles didn’t get stretched and used. Feet, then the calves of his long legs, once so strong now just skin and bone. Then hands, and fore-arms. Finally he asked me to do his back. Gently, gingerly, as his lungs and chest area were the source of the pain.
The last couple of visits with my children he spent time with my teenage girls on their own, dispensing advice, final words of wisdom. Harry read his poem. He recited it stood next to Dad. Dad made him recite it again, after giving him some guidance in how to project and slowly deliver. Just like Dad to give some direction to get the best out of someone.
My last visit with Dad was on a Sunday. We instinctively knew he was near the end, although it was the next day the nurse at the hospice told Mum he was in the ‘dying phase’. I had a good visit with him that morning, just him and me. He was mostly sleeping, brought on by the heavy drugs to control the pain. When the nurse came to check his medication he grabbed her hand so he could introduce her to me. That was my Dad. Always keen to connect people together. I fed him some soup. A couple of spoonfuls. I was glad to do it. He was not so glad. ‘Like a baby’ he said bitterly. That made me sad.
He asked after the children. I reassured him that everyone was fine, all was well. That seemed to put him at ease.
The next few days were hard. I knew I wouldn’t get to go and see him again until the Friday, which was Christmas Day. My mum was visiting every day, and other family members went on the Monday. My nephew sang to him. My sister accompanied my mum those last couple of days and said that when they left on the Wednesday he asked Mum for a kiss. We marvelled how such a small thing can bring comfort to someone when they are in so much pain. It’s a reminder to me of our humanity. The human connection which is still there right until the end. My sister also described to me how he had been moving his arm in a particular way whilst sleeping under the morphine-based drugs. The arm movements were reminiscent of his casting action for fly-fishing, and we hoped he was dreaming of fishing a beautiful river.
My mum went every day, all day. It was my turn to go Christmas day. He passed away at 5:50am that morning, so I never got to see him again. It was a relief on that day. He had been suffering. His discomfort was visible to see, sleeping with his mouth wide open the whole time. It was a blessing.
I know people talk about ‘dying with dignity’, and choosing when to go. I’m not sure how one does that. It was hard seeing him suffer, but he was still there, and which of those final precious moments would we have wanted to curtail?
Life is precious. It is a gift. It is also not meant to be pain-free or devoid of suffering. We were born to die. We were born to struggle and have pain. It’s what makes us value life, and breath, and our human connections.
I don’t know why my Dad, or anyone in that situation, has to go through what he went through. To lose one’s independence. But that’s part of life too. Caring for one another. It’s what we do for those we love. Accepting that care and that gift of service, and allowing others to do that. We are all beggars in God’s eyes.