Saturday, February 7, 2015
April 24, 2015 | My Jottings
To say, “When we woke up on Saturday morning” would not be the most accurate way to begin this post. I don’t think we actually slept much Friday night after Michael was brought home. Sharon and I were in my king-sized bed and Sara was camped out on the floor nearby, and Carolyn had gone home with baby Miriam the night before and would be returning this morning.
Michael’s breathing had grown more labored during the night and when we weren’t up and turning him, changing him, giving him meds and keeping his mouth moistened, whispering our love to him and trying to reposition him to keep him as comfortable as possible, we were laying in bed in the dark hours, listening to him breathe and feeling the enormity of what was happening.
I was so thankful that Michael wasn’t in pain. A day or two after the diagnosis of ischemic stroke had been given, our son-in-law Jeremy shared something with me that was more evidence of God’s mercies for Michael and us, his family. Jeremy is a nurse, and a couple of the seasoned nurses he works with told him that a massive ischemic stroke is known in the medical profession as “the velvet hammer.” It is said to be one of the most merciful deaths a person can experience, because unconsciousness comes quickly, and the very few people who have recovered from large ischemic strokes have said there was no pain. You close your eyes, and slowly fade away. A merciful death for a merciful man, I have thought countless times since then.
I knew the hospice nurse would be visiting on Saturday morning and I was quite anxious for her to arrive, since I was overwhelmed with how to keep the sheets beneath him smooth and how to do all his cares. It seemed like each time we changed him, the draw sheet would rumple underneath him and I can’t explain how inefficient I felt I was being, and I wanted her to show me how everything was done. The hospital nurse had shown me once, but I was having a hard time remembering all the steps. I wanted with all my heart to make Michael’s last days at home the most comfortable, tender and loving possible, and while I never voiced it, I felt I was already failing him in some way. I had failed him with my inability to keep him home for the entire duration of his Parkinson’s and dementia, now I wondered if I was letting him down again.
The gracious, encouraging, knowledgeable, caring hospice nurse arrived around 9:00 a.m. and what a help she was! Stephanie assessed Michael right away, then took a thorough look around the room, checking our supplies, giving me tips for how to do some things I’d been perplexed about, and telling us how impressed she was with how we were doing. That made me relax a little. She commented on how beautiful and bright the room was, the obvious love and care of Michael’s family, and she said we were doing “above and beyond,” and that she could feel the love and peace in the room, which truly surprised me.
When Stephanie observed Michael as we changed him, she looked straight into my eyes across his bed and said in a low voice that she thought it would be “a day or two.” I later asked her how she could tell, and she said she had seen some momentary grayness in his hands and lips when we turned him to the side. I hadn’t seen that at all, and it made me trust Stephanie’s years of experience, and it made me almost sob. After she pre-measured all of Michael’s oral syringes for us and set them where our makeshift pharmacy was arranged on our bedroom dresser, Stephanie asked to speak privately with me, Sharon, Carolyn and Sara. (Buffy and Daphne had spent the night with Michael’s sister Patty at her house up the north shore and would be arriving a little later.) We sat in the living room for over an hour and she told us what to expect, how to watch for certain things, little tips on how to better care for Michael. She was so quietly encouraging to all of us. She told us that when death finally came, we could keep him at home as long as we wanted, and not to feel any rush to call the funeral home. She told us it’s very common for a family to hold vigil at the deathbed of a loved one for days, and for the person to die when the people leave the room for three minutes to go to the bathroom. I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted to be with Michael when he died. Stephanie also gave us a hospice journal and told us to write down the times we turned Michael and on which side, the times and amounts of medication we gave him, when he was changed, etc. She said all these things would be hard to keep track of unless they were written down, and she was so right. We kept the journal on the dresser and each of us made entries in it as the hours passed.
Stephanie told us that she or another hospice nurse would come back on Monday. When she left I noticed a light sleety rain and a thin film of ice forming on the surfaces outside.
All day Saturday we were blessed with the visits of friends and family. Food and love poured into our house and I can’t even begin to say what a lavish gift this was. If I ever thought that taking a simple meal to a friend in need was just a trifle, I don’t think that now. I didn’t have to make a meal for days, and when 4:00 p.m. would roll around and I’d begin to think, “What shall I fix for dinner?” and then it would hit me that I didn’t have to fix dinner, the tears of gratitude would come. Friends brought pots of savory beef stew, homemade breads and rolls with meat and cheese platters, mouth-watering chicken and wild rice soup, ingredients for breakfast omelets, cookies, turkey and pasta casserole, salads, pies, and more.
Our friends were also so sensitive and respectful and made their visits fairly short. Michael was a well-loved man and people wanted to say good bye to him. I completely understood this, and I was grateful for it too. So while we had a steady stream of visitors, everyone seemed to intuitively know to keep their time in our room fairly brief. I never once felt intruded upon or overwhelmed by the friends and family who came to quietly pray or to just give us their hugs and tears. The older I get the more introverted I feel, but during the last week of Michael’s life I desperately needed the support of my peeps and it was right there.
There might even be people reading this who came to visit, who brought food, who sent cards and money, and to you all once again I say a humble and deeply heartfelt thank you. Such burden bearers. You made such a difference in our lives!
Michael was born in 1949, the first child of an agnostic father and a devoutly Catholic mother. His parents were truly great people. His mama had him baptized as an infant in the Catholic church, but he’d been only halfhearted in any of the normal church things a Catholic child is expected to take part in for his spiritual formation. When Michael was almost sixteen and ready to get his driver’s license, his mother lovingly coerced him to go through confirmation classes in exchange for driving privileges, and he agreed. Unfortunately for his mom, though, Michael never truly embraced Catholicism. Many years later when he dramatically became a Christian at age thirty and had difficulty restraining his zeal, I think his mom was torn. She was glad he had dedicated his life to Jesus, but probably saddened because he did not want to be Catholic. When the CAT scan results revealed that Michael’s stroke was massive and would soon take his life, his only sibling Patty asked me if he could have Last Rites performed by a priest. She knew it would have meant so much to his mom (who died along with his dad in a terrible car accident in 1997), and it would be reassuring to her as well. I happily agreed to this ceremony because I love Michael’s sister Patty so much. I wanted her to be blessed, and if having a priest come to pray at Michael’s bedside would help, I didn’t want to hesitate. It was agreed that we would schedule the priest’s visit for the weekend when Michael was brought home.
So, right around the dinner hour on Saturday evening, Sharon and Chris’s parish priest, Father Graham, arrived. In spite of our bedroom having at least ten people in it, Father Graham remarked right away how noticeable the sense of peace was. He looked at Michael quietly for a while and said, “Oh, he is at peace.” I believed he knew what he was talking about and meant it, since as a priest he had probably attended more death beds than he could remember. He had possibly seen some death beds that weren’t so full of peace. Father Graham asked us all to draw close to Michael, and as we surrounded the bed he anointed Michael’s forehead and wrists with oil, then read a beautiful prayer asking God to have mercy on his servant Michael and to take him home soon. He then invited all the grandchildren present to lay their hands on Grandpa as he prayed, and we all prayed The Lord’s Prayer together. It was a short ceremony and so touching, with the little children there praying for their grandfather. We thanked Father Graham, and I’ll never forget the last thing he confidently said before he left: “This is the grace of a happy death!” We grabbed onto that phrase “the grace of a happy death” and have spoken of it many times since.
And I absolutely believe there can be such a thing as a happy death, even though death is full of sorrow and often pain. To me, a happy death is when a person has trusted Christ for their salvation, and knows where they are going when they stop living on this earth. And a happy death is when that same person is so loved and cherished that his friends and family can’t bear the thought of a day without him, and they shower him with affection, grateful tears, songs and prayers as he is getting ready to leave them. And a happy death (in Michael’s case) was one relatively free of terrible physical suffering. I know not everyone gets to experience that one.
As it was getting close to bed time, my daughters and I sat around Michael’s bed and sang together. We might very well have sung a hundred songs on Saturday and Sunday. We sang songs from their growing up years in church (“The Horse and the Rider,” “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Majesty,” “Jesus, Name Above All Names”) and we pulled up songs and lyrics on our phones to help us sing along with the ones we didn’t fully know. We sang hymns and choruses. One daughter would start, and then when we recognized the song she was singing, the rest of us would join her. We sang God’s faithfulness and love and beauty and mercy out over Michael, into the air around us, and up to God’s throne. We cried as we sang. We laughed at some of the old memories the songs brought. We trusted that even though Michael was completely unresponsive now, he was still hearing us and being blessed. He had been a loud, unashamed and exuberant worshiper since he made the decision to follow Christ, and it seemed so right to worship together as a family around his bed.
I hesitate to speak this next sentence since it sounds self-focused, but by late Saturday night I was exhausted in every possible way. I kept silently praying that God would help us, help Michael, and give us strength and joy as we walked through this agonizing but beautiful part of his life, our lives. So when our son-in-law Jeremy showed up at our house at 11:30 p.m., after he had just worked an eight hour shift as a nurse at the hospital, I was taken aback. He told Sharon, Sara and me that he would be taking care of Michael through the night and that we were to get some sleep. Such costly mercies were being poured out on us! Jeremy set up a chair in the corner of our bedroom by the head of Michael’s bed, kept one small candle going all night, and Sharon, Sara and I tried to sleep. We did sleep off and on, at least better than we had on Friday night.
Every 90 minutes or so, Jeremy quietly tended to Michael’s needs. I heard him gently but expertly turning him, massaging lotion on his skin, giving him his meds. At one point after midnight Michael moaned deeply as Jeremy was turning him, and I heard Jeremy whisper, “There’s that voice I love…I’m here Michael. I’m with you. I love you,” and I could hardly bear it when Jeremy quietly wept as he bent over his father-in-law to care for him, showing his love in the most perfect way possible.
Around 3:00 a.m. I laid awake and listened to Michael’s breath become so labored. I wondered if he would live past Sunday. In the candle-lit dark I said to Sharon, “Are you awake?” and she was. Sara was sleeping, not very deeply I’m sure, on a pallet of blankets on the floor near the bed. Sharon and I laid together for a while and then I felt her take my right hand under the covers, and begin to massage it. Our family members (including my mom and dad) have always loved a good massage and have practically fallen unconscious each time someone rubs our necks or feet or hands. Sharon rubbed my hand and forearm and it was so lovely I almost cried. After a while she reached up to my jaw and slowly found the spots in the muscles that were tight from stress, and she gently massaged my jaw for the longest time too. After over 30 minutes of this gift, she patted my hand and whispered, “I love you Mama.” I’m always searching for words as I attempt to share some of the details of Michael’s journey to heaven, and here again, I can’t find any that really convey what Saturday night was like. As we laid in bed and listened to the beauty of Jeremy caring for Michael as he made his way down his final earthly path, as Sharon so tenderly blessed her exhausted mama with such a practical, loving gesture, I was struck by something, and I spoke of it to Sharon. “Can you feel it, Sharon?” I quietly asked. “Can you feel the kindness hovering over us right now?” She responded that she could, and of course she could, because it was almost palpable. There in the dark it blanketed us, and I said, “It’s the huge kindness of God, hovering over us all right now.”
And I was in awe. We were being covered with a comfort, a loving kindness, the weighty, glorious presence of our Heavenly Father. When our friends Steve and Diane had left to return home the day before, Diane assured me that what was happening in our home was very precious in God’s sight, and that He would be focusing all His attention on us in this room as He was calling Michael home. And since we know God lives outside of time, it is entirely possible for Him to do that with His children. Do you think God is too busy attending to all the needs of this groaning world to listen to your feeble prayers? Not so. He has all the time in the world for each one of us, because He is not constrained by time and place as we are.
I will never forget the wonder of Saturday night, when Jeremy selflessly stayed up all night to care for Michael so Sharon and I could rest. I will never forget God’s love through Sharon, and each of my children during this time. Try as I have here with much verbosity, there just aren’t words.
And Edith and Mildred were experiencing all of this in their own doggy ways. No one will ever convince me that they didn’t perceive that their daddy was getting ready to leave them.
All day Saturday, except for the times we let them outside and gave them their meals, Edith and Millie stayed close to Michael.
Edith held her vigil under Michael’s hospital bed. She’s thirteen now and is becoming a little arthritic, so she doesn’t jump up on furniture as easily as she used to.
And Millie, who is still spry and gazelle-like at age nine, jumped up on Michael’s bed many times, carefully sniffing him and discerning what was happening. She often curled up as close to her master as possible, with her expressive ears back and down, as if she sensed how little time for such snuggling was left.
Friends, family, food, tears, laughter, singing, worshiping, hope, exhaustion, anticipation, sorrow, unity, comfort, kindness, love, gratitude, vigilance, awe, devotion and peace.
These wondrous gifts and more filled up the last Saturday of Michael’s life. And made us so acutely and thankfully aware of what it’s like when God bestows on His undeserving children the grace of a happy death.
As the sun came up on Sunday morning, we all thought, this might be the day…
Julie, this is so beautiful and moving and I have no words. Thank you for sharing such an intimate and personal part of your life. My words are incredibly inadequate but my prayers continue to be with you and Michael’s loved ones for the comfort and joy and peace of God. Not only the peace of God, but the God of peace be with you and keep your heart and mind.
Ohhhh….thank you Mariah. It was a blessing to log in and find your kind words here. I hope you and yours (cats included!) are well! xoxo
Bless you Julie xxx
Thank you dear Kay. God bless you and Alan too … xoxo
I think it’s a really good thing that you’re documenting this time in your life. Not only must it be cathartic, but I believe that you will come to treasure what you’ve written in years to come. It’s so easy to forget or mis-remember even the ‘biggest’ things in our lives. You and your family looked after Michael so well and you are all an inspiration. I’m sure God will use your experiences, painful as they are. I echo Mariah’s thoughts and prayer.
Sending lots of love ….xxxooo
Kay, you have stated exactly why I’m doing this. Michael’s last seven days were so full of God’s presence and grace, yet so overwhelming, that I never want to forget even the smallest details. Yet I know I will. I’ve already had to ask my daughters certain questions to get the time line right, since so many things are a blur now. But when I’m gone from this earth, I’m hoping these things will be here for my children and grandchildren to read (and whoever else); I don’t want them to forget either. Thank you so much for putting to words what I’m trying to do. Hugs to you and Alan… xoxo