When Mother was dying, I didn’t understand about the dying process the way I do now. Jane Marie reminded me there's hard won knowledge we can only get through living. I've surely learned much through my work. The nuanced learning though, has come from family and close friends.
Jim helped me learn. Mom. Laurie. Gloria.
Dad helped me a couple years ago.
He’s helping in a new way now.
Dad felt warm to me yesterday. Slight fever. Nothing to do about it.
Linda, his hospice nurse came for her visit. Vitals were fine. No fever. Took me an afternoon to understand what was happening. Linda helped me see it.
Once upon a time I was visiting with a pregnant friend when she started having ‘cramps’. I’d never had a baby so I didn’t know what was up. The women sitting on either side of her, whose faces my friend couldn’t see, glanced at each other with knowing looks.
Labor. My friend was in it.
My father is in it now.
Dad’s experiencing a waxing and waning of heat and cool as his body works to release his spirit. Just like labor pains, the cycles are far apart first, then get closer and closer together until the cool stays.
As Dad gets further into the laboring, he moves farther away, especially in the warm cycles. He spoke few words yesterday. He's a bit more present this morning. It’s easy to assume our beloved dying are not with us - can't hear us, aren't present - in this process. Not true.
See the picture at the top? John showed it to Dad. Dad’s response, a smile and “Woof!”
Most of the time there’s a far away look when Dad’s eyes are open. Ester or Debi’s voice or Helen or Gloria’s touch have brought his focus to present time. He doesn’t stay long - 10 seconds, 20 seconds if we’re lucky.
His eyes were wide open and he was away when Rev. Clifton Howard made his second visit late in the afternoon. He came back for a moment.
Rev. Howard took Dad’s hand and stood there. A strong tower of peace. He didn’t talk. He didn’t move. He didn’t fill the space. He was utterly and totally present. In his silent steadiness Dad closed his eyes and went to sleep. Then the 23rd Psalm. In that container, I had space to cry.
I read Agatha Christi to Dad last night, right up until his brow was furrowed.
"Dad, are you hurting?"
"You’re frowning. I wonder if you’re in any pain?"
"Do you want me to keep reading?"
I closed the book and found music. Debbie Gordon sent this version of the Lord's Prayer with Andrea Bocelli and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It’s glorious.
I wondered what was next. I remembered a conversation at the hospital Saturday morning. We talked about his funeral.
“Dad, I’m so sorry you’re going to miss it. It'll be a beautiful service.”
I decided as we sat together last night I could play the pieces he’s chosen for that day, ones he loves so much.
First, Panis Angelicus.
Then as Sancta Maria was playing, Dad turned his head to the window and reached out toward someone or something.
“Ahh, Papa.... They’re here.”
He closed his eyes around midnight. I closed mine.
This morning when he's awake, Dad’s been present - smiling, drinking a little juice, saying ‘hi sweetie’…. Jasmine is washing his hair and we’re listening to Bocelli again.
Grandson and Great Granddog have arrived for the day.
Rev. Steve Langford came by. John encouraged Steve to talk to Dad.
"No, let's let him do his work."
Martha Jo Atkins, Ph.D., LPC-S is the Executive Director of Abode Contemplative Care for the Dying in San Antonio, Texas. Dr. Atkins is a professional counselor, coach, and researches and teaches about the trajectory of dying. You can learn more about Abode Contemplative Care for the dying at www.abodehome.org. You can learn more about Dr. Atkins at www.marthaatkins.com or find her on Facebook here or here.