If all goes according to plan -- we will all die orphans
Hospice Made All The Difference... Thank You
Charles H. Randall was my father and he used to tell me that if everything went according to plan we would all die orphans. A few minutes before 5:00 oíclock on the morning of July 20th half of the plan came to pass as he slipped quietly from this world into the next.
My father used to joke that there was no problem so big or complex that you couldnít walk away from it. In the past that is how I had dealt with death -- by avoiding it, by not thinking about it and by pretending it wasnít happening. None of those strategies would work this time. My father was dying at home attended by his family and children. Aggressive treatment had given way to hospice care. Unless you are hit by a bus, death is a process rather than an event.
Frankly, I was terrified. I was afraid would fail my father. I was afraid of being afraid. In addition to the fear of letting down my dad I was scared that I would let down my wife and two children who were also present.
Dad had been a professor of drama at Ithaca College and Fresno State University. He had written and published several plays and had quite a bit of experience dealing with fear and stage-fright. He had once told me the best way to deal with fear was to hold onto it for a moment, acknowledge it and then fold it up and put it in your back pocket and do the best you can.
Charles lived in California in a place called Arroyo Grande (latterly translated from Spanish to English as ĎBig Ditchí). Several months ago he was diagnosed with inoperable stomach cancer. Extended chemo and radiation treatment failed to halt the spread of his cancer. His condition was terminal.
My family and I made arrangements to visit him in mid-August. Our schedule changed as his condition deteriorated more quickly than expected. We flew out to be with him on July 8th. The plan was to spend the first few days with my dad and then take my wife and two kids on a tour of the state and finish off the vacation by spending the last few days visiting with my dad before returning home to Kingston.
My dad was in his eighties. Before he got sick, he had the strength appearance of a man in his late fifties or early sixties. When I saw my father I was shocked. A man once so strong and healthy had been reduced to a shadow and he needed the help of a walker to get around. The first few visits were a bit awkward but went reasonably well. Most of the conversation was small talk. Death and dying were taboo subjects and each of us avoided talking about the elephant in the room. Death may have been approaching but it seemed a long way away. None of us realized he had less than a week to live.
After a few days with dad, my family and I left Arroyo Grande and set off to explore California and spend time at Bass Lake, just north of Fresno. Not more than four days into our tour I got an urgent call to return as quickly as possible. Dad had been hospitalized and was being discharged the next day to in-home hospice care.
When we arrived everything had changed. The Lazy-boy rocker had been replaced by an electric hospital bed. My dad was fairly responsive and in remarkably good spirits as he drifted in and out of sleep. The next 72 hours passed in a blur. The last three days of my fatherís life were the most difficult and rewarding Iíve ever lived. It was an emotional roller coaster ride which challenged the beliefs, values, and assumptions which defined me as a person.
The hospice team was on hand to help us prepare for the coming days. They explained what was happening -- dad was dying and his body had begun to shut down. Moments in which he was awake and responsive would become less and less frequent and within the next day or so he would slip into a coma which would gradually deepen. If we had any plans to say our good-bys, now was the time to say them.
Each member of the family took turns talking with dad. We told stories, we recalled events great and small. We laughed and we cried -- sometimes doing both at once.
We told him we loved him and we sat for hours just holding his hand. One of us on each side of the bed. I had my digital camera in the car but I was determined not to take any pictures. I didnít want to remember dad in this condition.
My resolve to avoid pictures was overturned when Betty (his wife) and my sister pleaded for a photo. Dad asked for a beer and we had our picture taken as we toasted love and family. It was his last beer and it turned out to be the last picture ever taken of my dad.
As the day drew to a close I took my dadís hand as he slept and kissed him on the forehead and told him I loved him. As I turned to walk away he woke for a moment and said, ďI love you too.Ē They were the last words he was to speak. The next day dad was in a coma and was unable to talk, but he could respond by squeezing his hand as we held it or by arching his eyebrows.
My two children were remarkable. Without prompting they each took their turn and sat with dad for hours at a time. The gentleness and maturity that my 12-year old daughter and 15-year old son showed as they comforted their dying grandfather made me proud beyond words.
During breaks in our vigils we talked about what was happening to my dad. I explained that the rainbow of life had birth at one end and death at the other. Dying was as natural as being born and one way or another everyone dies. I told them that the quality of life isnít measured by its length but rather by its width. Itís the number of lives you touch and the amount of love you share.
At one point my son expressed his frustration -- ďWhy are we here? What good are we doing? He canít hear us -- whatís the point?Ē I told him it was like seeing someone off on a bus trip. You donít leave the station after your friend boards the bus. You wait for the bus to leave before you go home. In dadís case, heís on the bus but it hasnít left yet.
On the third day dadís coma had deepened and his breathing had became more labored. We stayed with him throughout the day and long into the evening. By midnight I was dead on my feet. Dadís breathing had appeared to stabilize and it seemed safe to return to the hotel to grab a few hours of sleep. With tears streaming down her cheeks my daughter begged for the opportunity to stay with my dad through the night. I didnít want her to remain without me but as I looked into her eyes I saw a determination that would not be deterred. My wife and I relented and we allowed her to stay. As we left I asked Betty and my sister to give me a call if his condition changed.
As exhausted as I was, I did more tossing and turning than sleeping. At 5 oíclock the phone rang with the news my dad had just died.
My daughter had been at his side holding his hand as he took his last breath. The whole experience brought us all closer to each other and taught us all the value of life and love. I left on vacation with two children. I returned with two kids -- no longer children but not yet adults. I have no doubt that they will be able to face what ever life has to offer with the same courage and dignity that marked my fatherís life.
Farewell dad. We love you and we will miss you.
Last edited by SkyWolf; 10-20-2005 at 10:48 PM.