Listening to a Life: Death

If you came to my house (and please do not consider this an invitation), among my many books you’d find an entire shelf or more of biographies and memoirs. I love reading about other people’s lives. As  I read about how they faced their challenges and followed their dreams I learn lessons for my own life.

So I want to focus a couple of blog posts on learning from one particular life.

Joe Haymes

My father, Joe Haymes, died earlier this month at age 87. He was, by all accounts (and not just mine) an extraordinary man. I learned a lot from him over the years, but I think he still has things to teach us.

So I start with the ending.

My father had Pulmonary Fibrosis, a progressive lung disease in which supple lungs gradually grow hard and unable to take in oxygen, probably the result of nearly 30 years of smoking, a habit he began in the war. At the end, he also suffered from dementia. The dementia really began after my mother’s death and  I am convinced that after a lifetime together, his mind could not accept being in a world where she was not.

In January he began going downhill sharply. He also started to tell us he was dying.

Lesson # 1 – Listen to what dying people tell you. When Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (EKR) began her work, part of what was ground-breaking (and scandalous at the time) was that she listened to people talk about dying. Before that dying patients were shuffled off into far corners of the hospital where they could be safely ignored.

When my father began saying, “I’m dying,” some of his caregivers became upset and told him not to talk like that. Because of my work and my training, I knew that it was important to pay attention and to begin preparing for the final stages. He was telling us what was coming.

Lesson #2 – Listen for symbolic language. After my father had been moved into the nursing care unit, he asked me one night, “Do I need to pack for my journey?” It took me a few seconds to realize what he was asking, and  I reassured him that no, he had everything he needed. He smiled and relaxed.

EKR used to tell stories of families who tried to correct patients who told them that they were going home the next day. The families didn’t want the patients to be disappointed when they were unable to leave the hospital. But, of course, in a deeper sense going home is exactly what they did.

Lesson #3 – Sometimes dying is a lot like birthing. Over the last weeks as I sat by my father’s bedside, I realized I felt a lot like a midwife. Now I’ve never actually been there when someone was giving birth (well, there was that one New Year’s eve party that wound up moving into the maternity waiting room, but I digress.) Even so,  it seemed so similar to me.

We were waiting for it to be time, a time no one could predict or control. I couldn’t make it happen or not happen. All I could was sit and tend to those elementary needs – a sip of water, rubbing his back, sharing a chocolate chip cookie, reassuring him. I felt like a midwife.

Dying seemed a lot like birthing, and as a Christian, that is exactly true. We believe that death is not an ending but a transition. There are times when our faith demands of us a dying as a gateway to a birthing – and in the end our bodies get in on the action as well.

Lesson #4 – Sometimes death is a friend. After being moved to nursing care, my father developed pneumonia. “I’ll call the doctor about prescribing antibiotics,” the nurse said. “No,” I stopped her. “If you cure this, he is still dying of lung disease.” Actually, pneumonia was known as the old person’s friend because when they were ill and frail with no hope of better, it came in and ended their suffering.

There is a temptation to do a medical intervention just because we can. We feel as if we are being mean or heartless or abandoning them if we do not do everything that can possibly be done (which these days is a lot.)

But we were not made to live forever. At least for now, all of us will come face to face with that point at which our bodies have gone as far as they can go. Even so, with modern medicine, we can be kept here beyond that point. Beyond the point of life having any meaning or value, the point at which there is only pain and discomfort. There comes a time when the most loving thing we can do is to let someone die as their body needs to die.

Lesson #4 – Hospice is wonderful. While Hospice had been involved in my dad’s care for several months, for the last week of his life he had the gift of being at the Kate B. Reynolds Hospice home in Winston-Salem. When he first arrived, the doctor announced that they were taking him off all medicine except what was needed to keep him comfortable. (I mean, really – did we care if he had high cholesterol at that point?)

They took it as their mission to make him comfortable and did not rest until they had the right combination of medication that allowed him to be peaceful. They also took it as their mission to care for me and other family members who were present.

I’ve occasionally heard older folks say they didn’t want to go to hospice because “my friend was there and they wouldn’t even give her food and water and that’s just cruel.” They took my dad off food and water for the last couple of days as well but not because they were cruel. It was because they understood that one of the ways that the body prepares for the end of life is to start disengaging from life. The patient no longer wants food or water. They are moving beyond those things. The patient isn’t suffering hunger. They no longer need those appetites.

As  I see it, the purpose of hospice is to create a place where a person may be  gently held as they make this last and maybe most sacred journey, a place where the body is allowed the grace of doing what it needs to do with the only intervention being for comfort. It is also a place where loved ones are held, sometimes literally as well as metaphorically. Families are given all of the support they need so that they can focus on the holy task of supporting their loved one.

For me, it was a place where I could relax and just be present with my father. And that is a priceless gift.


Next time we’ll have a little lighter look as we learn from a childhood in which adventures were had.


The Titanic and Small things

Usually stories about the Titanic focus on big things – the size of the ship, the amount of wealth held by the wealthiest passengers, the large number of lives lost. But in listening to a story on Bob Edwards Weekend I was intrigued by the small things.

The ship nearly had a collision upon leaving Southampton, delaying her by an hour. When she struck the iceberg, she was still running an hour behind. If the lookouts had seen the iceberg 10 seconds earlier, they could have avoided it. If the ship had been going half a knot slower, they would have missed it. Small things.

Those small things added up to a huge event; in this case, a disaster. But it made me think about how much of our lives is composed of small things. The phone call we make – or put off. The book we read – or don’t pick up. The person whom we speak to – or ignore. Sometimes we see the impact of small things but many times we do not. Over and over again I hear from people the stories of how one person’s comment or question or caring made an impact on their lives.

We can approach this truth in one of two ways. We can live in paralyzing fear that one of our small things is going to sink a ship. Or we can live in trust, trusting that as we do the best we know how that we are in fact cooperating with something – or Someone – greater than ourselves. It’s not up to us to figure it all out. It’s only up to us to seek to be faithful in the small moments and trust that at least some of those small moments are changing our lives – or the lives of others – in ways we cannot yet see. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t seem like a big deal to us.

The other insight  I had from the interview is about the story of the gates being locked so that steerage passengers could not get out and go to the top of the ship. Both major movies about the Titanic have very dramatic scenes of hoards of poor passengers begging to have the gates opened so that they could escape. But it didn’t happen like that.

It was true that gates were locked, but they were locked when the ship left Southampton. Steerage passengers quite often carried with them lice and other infestations as well as communicable diseases. It was the regulation of US Immigration that they be segregated. When the Titanic was damaged, crew members unlocked the gates.

Steerage passengers had two barriers to survival. One was geography. Their rooms were at either end of the ship, meaning they had the farthest to go to reach the top and the lifeboats. The other obstacle was psychological.

The turn of the twentieth century was a time of huge class distinctions. The steerage passengers lived lives in which someone else always told then what to do. When things fell apart, they perished waiting on instructions from their “betters.”

It made me think about how many times we wait for something instead of taking action for our own welfare; for example, someone else giving us permission that it’s okay to do it. Or we don’t take action because of inner beliefs that keep us trapped just as surely as lessons of class and privilege kept those passengers trapped.

What are you waiting on?