Through the sunny days and cool nights of Southern California’s October and early November 2007, I watched Dad’s withdrawal from life; his losing weight, talking less and less, then not at all; eating less, than not at all; drinking less, then not at all. I knew his last two bites of ice cream were indeed the last food he would eat. He was disappearing from life, pulling inward, hour by hour, until he participated only in the inner world unless disturbed or called out for a minute or two by a visitor or upon hearing something like Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto, a long time favorite.
I went with him on this journey of withdrawal from life during his last five weeks of life. At first, I would visit the Folks home every other day, then everyday, then longer each day, then only leaving to sleep at home, then not leaving or even stepping outside for the last ten days. My outside world also grew smaller and smaller each day until it almost entirely disappeared and the inner world, the world of spirit, thoughts of mortality and concerns about my Mom took over. Life became more and more simple on the outside and fuller and more complex inside. Dad’s inner world gained dimensions I’d never imagined, populated by a world of spirits of those who had passed on, waiting to greet and help. I’d sit and watch him as he reviewed his life, greeting those from the past, his face animated with surprise, joy, soft happiness, sometimes shock or pain. Quite a show he must have seen in those last few days. He did his review and I did mine, sometimes together, but often in different rooms in the same house.
We were connected. I spent my days digging out records and photos from the mostly distant past for him. It wasn’t his verbal request, more an inner compulsion I could not understand nor could I deny or resist. I just did what I must. I dug through boxes and files, often feeling his gaze over my shoulder, as I found photos of his childhood friends, his WWII photos, his parent’s wedding, Purdue fraternity, and 8th grade class 1934. Each touched me. Each one touched him. From our separate worlds, we communed.
I would have expected that his degenerating appearance would have disturbed me. One might say he was “wasting away” or “disappearing before our eyes.” It didn’t disturb me. It was natural, perfect, and he took (or was given) enough time to quietly review this life and to be greeted into the next life, whatever. It was all a gift to me and a gift to him. It was exactly how it should have been. How could I wish to change what was so right? Yes, he looked like some of those horrible renaissance paintings of the dead and dying. But that is how it looks on the outside if you’re fortunate enough to be part of it. Yes, there was the “death rattle.” I learned that from the amazing Hospice people it didn’t make Dad uncomfortable or disturb him. I could let go. This was all about letting go, over and over in every way. This is indeed how it is and should be. My wishes, preferences, had nothing to do with anything. Letting go of him, the process, the appearance, and my thoughts, all of it. It was utterly clear then that what Dad needed to know was that it’s ok to go, that we, especially Mom, are ok and taken care of now and will be taken care of in the future. I did that. I told Dad it was ok to go, just in case he worried. I got an unmistakable verbal message back from him that was something like this, “Don’t rush me, I’ll go when I’m damn good and ready.” I was taken aback. I didn’t mean to offend him at this juncture in life. Then I laughed out loud. There was irritation, humor, and wit hidden in so many things he said in life, right up to the end. He then smiled his elf smile for just a moment. It took him two more days to move on. Anytime I walked in his room to “visit,” he was active in his inner world, 24/7, never sleeping, always on his own (remarkable) schedule.
It is now December, a month after Dad died. There’s snow in the mountains and frost on the lawn this morning. What I remember is his unfailing sweetness even as his body was going through intense agitation while he could still walk.
There was so much I didn’t know but learned along the way. That the agitation often comes along with the process of dying and it’s not at all unusual. If I’d known, I may have been more relaxed. As it was, I didn’t understand why he incessantly needed to get up and move from chair to chair, room to room, go down for a nap and be up 3 minutes later. Dad didn’t know what was driving that agitation either. If I’d known, could I have said, “Dad, your need to move around every 5 minutes is just part of the process. There’s nothing wrong with it and it will pass in a few more days.”
I don’t know when the realization hit me that he was dying and dying soon. During my first week back from Bali in September, I knew it would probably be 6 months or less. The third week back I knew he was dying soon and by the beginning of the fourth week, it was only a matter of weeks.