My father died on March 8, 2011 after a month of home hospice, preceded by an 8-year battle with emphysema and throat and lung cancer. His final hours were marked by overwhelming sadness mixed with a somewhat disconcerted relief that he was no longer suffering.
Home hospice offers an incredible gift to the dying and their families. For my father, it allowed him to go home to die in the house he shared with my step-mother for over 40-years, and with his family and beloved dog, Princess, at his side. It was a time for his family and many friends to gather around his bedside to reminisce and say all the things they wanted or needed to say, while there was still time.
I don’t believe my father would want anyone to sugarcoat the details of his final days because he always told things pretty much the way they were. That was just a part of who he was. While his passing was difficult on him physically and heartbreaking to witness, that is what you do for someone you love; you try your best to put your own fears aside, then you step forward and provide all the love and comfort that you can. I say “try” because not everyone is able witness the death of a loved one, and there is certainly no shame in that.
There is a quiet and surreal intensity when someone you love is dying. Everything can seem strangely calm. and yet everyone knows what is happening is monumental. Your mind persistently questions how what you are witnessing with your own eyes can possibly be happening. And yet it is so and you are painfully aware that you are helpless to stop it. And so the days come and go, and the clock keeps ticking.
My father’s home hospice began after a week-long stay in the hospital following a series of seizures. Our family used his final days to provide him whatever comfort we could while trying not to focus on his impending death, lest we lose any of the precious time we had left with him. For us there was no question how we would handle it. It was just so. The hospice service set-up a hospital bed where the family dining table normally stood, so he could watch television and easily receive visitors. On one side of his bed was the suction device he used to clear his airway to make his breathing easier; and on the other side stood a small table with his cell phone and other personal items. He was unable to eat most foods because of an ever-present danger of it backing up into his lungs and causing pneumonia. So my father subsisted mostly on juices, gelatin, pudding, mashed potatoes and gravy, and his favorite, grapefruit wedges with sugar. Whenever he drifted off, we would all quietly move to the adjoining living room so he could rest; although he did not seem to want to waste much time resting with the end of his life in sight.
Each day my dad read his newspaper or watched television, usually with one or two family members sitting by his side. And during some of these quiet moments, I would catch him looking intently at one of us. Once, I asked him what he was thinking about and he quietly mumbled, “oh, nothing.” But I understood, because I also watched him when he wasn’t looking or when he was sleeping; trying to capture those simple dwindling moments to my memory, knowing there was not a lot of time left.
On Valentine’s Day he asked if I would select a gift for him to give my stepmother, since he could no longer venture out. I understood that he simply wanted to give my stepmother something special, knowing this would be their last Valentine’s Day together. It still tugs at my heart when I think about him contemplating those final days of life. His demeanor seldom changed and he always put on a brave face. He said he was not afraid to die, but we were certainly afraid of losing him.
A few weeks into home hospice, the changes in my father’s health became more noticeable. He began to need more pain medication, and in response to these medications he began to sleep more. Around this same time, various members of our family were hit with the flu, including myself, and we were unable to be by his side for a few precious days. On the evening that I went home sick I told my dad that I loved him and that I would be back soon. When I was able to return a few days later, he had slipped into a coma and was unresponsive. One afternoon he took his usual nap, but this time he did not wake up. It became undeniable that the end was near; his brave 8-year battle was almost over.
My stepmother, Char, had cared for my father not just in his final months, but throughout the years of his illness. No one could have done better at caring for him over the years than she did, and our family will always be very grateful they had each other. My dad’s remaining days became a routine of administering pain medication, moistening his lips and mouth, massaging his limbs and repositioning his body to keep him as comfortable as possible. And my step-mother had not left his side for more than a few hours during the entire month of his home hospice. But despite round the clock vigils, it became necessary to move him to a hospice facility on March 8, 2011. We did not know it then, but he would die this very day, within a few hours of the move.
The family stood quietly by on that cold, gusty day watching solemnly as my father was loaded into the ambulance for the short trip to the hospice facility. And as we followed the ambulance to the hospice facility I couldn’t help but wonder, “how did we get here so suddenly?”
At the hospice facility I had a few minutes alone with my dad and I used that time to tell him how much I loved him, and how proud I was that he was my father. Then my stepmother came back into the room and we stood on each side of the bed rubbing his arms as his beloved dog, Princess, lay by his side. Within just a few moments his breathing suddenly quickened and stopped a couple of time times, and suddenly he was gone. Just like that, his 70-year life was over.
How do loved ones cope with the enormity of such a loss and the shocking permanence of this life-changing event? Throughout the years of my father’s life I had casually observed the special relationships he shared with each of his children. He and my sister Tammy were bound by their hearts and always very protective of one another. With my brother Ed he shared a very matter-of-fact and logical view of the world. With my brother Paul he shared an adventurous belief in a world where anything was possible. With our cousin Jerry, who grew up alongside us, he shared a belief in hard work and a disciplined work ethic. And I shared with my dad both a wry sense of humor and a quiet thoughtfulness of the things around us. And it occurs to me that in all these things, the husband, father, brother and friend whom we all loved so deeply, lives on in each of us. We are his legacy and he will continue to live and be our mentor throughout our own lives.
My father, James Ellsworth Goodrow, lived nearly 71-years. He worked hard and he was fiercely loyal to his family and friends. His life was filled with family, friends, travel and adventure. He was an integral part of decades of family gatherings and happy memories shared with special people. Over 300 people visited my dad in his final month of home hospice and when he died, the church was over-flowing at his funeral. These things are truly a testament of the man we all loved and continue to love so deeply, and will miss so terribly.
John Pete is founder of the grief support site at MyGriefSpace.net and the My Grief Space Peer Grief Group on Facebook. John has been featured on Grief Talk Radio and his articles “The Gift” and “Preparing To Say Goodbye and Other Challenges of the Heart” are published in the book, “Open To Hope, Inspirational Stories of Healing After Loss.” He has also written many other spiritual articles. (Read in the John Pete Blog)
In addition to spiritual writing, John creates gallery-quality dream catchers using willow, natural stones and other materials to design art that represents nature, healing, protection and various cultural belief systems & rituals. His work has been displayed and sold in New York and the Midwest.
His hand-woven dream catchers can be displayed as a stunning art piece, or for spiritual protection & healing.