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.
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.