I didn’t know dying was such hard work

Ten days ago my father died. It wasn’t like what I expected. I had no idea that dying was such hard work. If I’d thought about it before, I guess it was in terms like sudden or not, violent or not, painful or not. But not as work.

Now I suspect it must be like moving house: moving out that is, and no one mistakes moving in for moving out. I’ve moved out of apartments in an afternoon. But the last move I made was from a house I’d lived in twenty years, long after having moved into a new one. There was no need to hurry and it took months.

We shut down that house room by room. There was an initial thrust: big packing campaign, moving boxes, then the furniture, and when the beds were moved we no longer slept in the old house. But a year would pass before we left it for the last time.

We’d start and we’d stop. Fix this, tinker with that til there was less and less to do.

We left a few things behind — not unimportant ones, either, but personal items, things that made the house still ours in ways that holding the deed and keys did not.

Gradually there was less and less that needed doing.

A final haul out of trash.

Shutting off the power.

Turning off the water.

Locking the door one last time, turning over the keys, and knowing, finally, we would never return.

I don’t know what his death certificate will list as my father’s cause of death. He had spent years dying of Parkinson’s, dementia, Alzheimer’s. He’d outlived both his body and his mind, and about a month ago went through a period when he declared he was dead. Not, mind you, that he wanted to die or was dying, but that he was dead. He stopped eating. But then he started again.

Then he stopped again, and this time he could or would not drink. He seemed to have forgotten how to or was no longer able to swallow. Two weeks ago the hospice leader told me if I were coming, to come now. I left immediately.

I thought he would die on Tuesday. All day my father’s blood pressure, pulse, and temperature dropped. My mother and I talked to him, sang to him, and read to him since it is thought that hearing is the last sense to shut down. Once or twice when the nurse shifted him his eyes opened and stayed open for about ten minutes, but there was no one at home.

It seemed my father was beyond the point of return, but in the evening his vitals near-normalized, and the hospice nurse told me that based on her six years of waiting, she felt my father would live through the night. She promised to call at the slightest indication she had been mistaken.

But she wasn’t wrong. And this is where it gets interesting.

When we arrived Wednesday, my father was back. His eyes were open and he was at home, and that day, as I talked to him, I saw in those eyes all the subtle changes that listening brings, and he now and then would try to raise an eyebrow or forehead muscle. I was certain he could not only hear but understand us as we told him that he didn’t have to keep fighting, that no one had tried harder, that he had earned his rest, that he would not be letting us down if he wanted to go, that what we wanted was for him to be free of pain and fatigue and loneliness.

As much as I believed he was conscious that day for several hours, maybe later I would have convinced myself that I was wrong, had it not been for the arrival of his longtime caregiver come-to-be best friend, Mercedes.

Into this room of hushed and serious talk comes Mercedes, loudly and clearly declaring herself: Adams, are you still here? Don’t you know the angels are waiting on you? They’ve got their arms wide open and here you are, still in this bed!

My father smiled. He smiled a wide, uncomplicated, boyish smile with his mouth and with his eyes. Mercedes said something else amusing. And he smiled again. Everyone saw him. Twice.

Then Mercedes wanted to know where my older brother was, and hearing he was on the road, sighed that didn’t we know my dad was waiting on him?

I believe that by then my father’s vision was like a newborn’s. He could see faces but nothing else, and so when I got my brother on the cell phone, maybe he thought the voice he heard was coming from across the room.

After that call once more we told my father he’d earned a long and peaceful rest. His work was done. The angels and all those he had lost were waiting. It was time to move on. Toward dawn he died.

8 thoughts on “I didn’t know dying was such hard work”

  1. this is grat help. my mother is at her final stages of life and this has educated me well what to look out for.. better than the junk you get on the nhs website

  2. So very beautiful, Laurie. Thank you for sharing, and for reminding me of your writings on this subject, this morning.
    One day last week, my mother said she was dozing and heard my father say, very clearly, “I’m OK. I’m going home.” She swears it was not a dream, and my mom is a very skeptical person, very pragmatic in many ways. She asked him if he had said something, and he said he hadn’t. She believes he did. But in any case, I found that comforting, and I think she did, as well.

  3. […] Imminent Death and Spontaneous Return to Mental Awareness Posted on October 18, 2010 by havealittletalk The day before he died, my father, who over the course of several years had suffered a steadily decreasing awareness of and interest in his and others’ lives, finally appearing to no longer have an inner life, suddenly, briefly and inexplicably returned to the world. I described this here. […]

  4. You are so right. It was a privilege to be with him. Please let me be there for you as you were for me, when your turn comes to watch and wait.

  5. Laurie,

    This is a both beautiful and beautifully written. I know it was like work, but you know — you will carry this with you till your moving out day. What a gift your father gave you as he moved out.

    You now have a jewel to hold forever.


  6. This is really beautiful, Laurie. For those new to this dying business, it will help to read about your experience. And for us who have done it, it brings back recognition.

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