In the Midst of Life, We Are in Death

After a long final illness, my father finally passed away early this morning at the age of 90. Although he lived well and died at home, it was an emotional and physical rollercoaster at the end, and I was left trying to figure out the point of it all. Does it mean something, or is it just the final, cruel grinding down of a human life to ash without any hope or purpose?

I think it was the nurses who finally gave me my answer: not by word, but by deed.

My father was a strong man with a body broken–repeatedly–in service to others. Seventy-six years (!) as a church usher, 25 years as a volunteer fireman, 4 years  in the 8th/9th Air Force and the Army of Occupation in the European theater, many more years serving at his  church’s soup kitchen, and a lifetime of backbreaking construction work (one of the most dangerous and least-respected professions) to support a family. He lost the two things that were his own private pleasures–bowling and golf–following a construction accident in which he saved the life of a falling man, only to have his shoulders destroyed, leaving him in pain for the last 20+ years of his life.

His hands were rough and his fingers pointed in different directions from being crushed or broken so many times. He survived countless accidents, illnesses, and surgeries. When he was diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm at age 87, doctors discovered that his heart was so strong they recommended valve replacement surgery, from which he recovered quickly and completely. If not for the lung cancer, that heart would have kept him going past 100. (Yes, I know: “And other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…”)

The man was made of bailing wire and leather. In the end, this made things all the harder for him, because his body just would not stop functioning. “I’m ready to go,” he kept telling me, telling everyone. He was at peace, he couldn’t move, see, or hear well. He could barely eat. He was wasting away. He wasn’t in pain: the hospice and the morphine took care of that. But he couldn’t do anything but sit in his recliner. He couldn’t even see or hear the TV.

Last week, he stopped being able to do even that.I was sleeping in his room when he awoke needing to go the bathroom. I helped him there and we were on the way back when he couldn’t go any further. I was able to get him to the hospital bed that had been placed in his room “just in case,” and which he insisted he would never use. That was where he stayed until the end. A short time later, he lost consciousness. Every night, a different visiting nurse would tell me he wouldn’t make it to the morning, and every morning, there he was, day after day, fading away but never dying. Finally, after days of this left me exhausted and twitchy, I let my wife start sharing the burden. She took the last two days, and proved by her kindness, strength, and nurturing that women just do this better.

My father and his parents, 1942

There were brief “rallies” and flickers here and there. One day, he was muttering something, and when my mother asked him who he was talking to, he said, “All of them” with a smile. He would regain tiny slivers of consciousness and his eyes would focus on blank places in the room, one after another, and smile beatifically.

He finally stopped waking up at all, but that heart kept pumping, to the confusion of the nurses and everyone else. Less than a hundred pounds, almost a week without food or more than a few drops of water, somehow he just kept grinding on. When they said it would only be hours it was days. When they said it was probably only minutes, it was hours.

My mother got angry. “What is the purpose of this? Why doesn’t God take him?” I said maybe it was to draw us closer to God in prayer. “I’m praying less,” she snapped. “I’m angry.”

I wasn’t too pleased with Him either.

I knew that this was the way of the world, and that one day my son may sit by my bed as I sat by my father’s. I reminded him of this while I went through it, and I knew that this was a lesson taught by living and dying in a certain way, and those are the most important and permanent lessons.

But I also knew there seemed to be no earthly reason for this body to continue functioning. He wasn’t suffering, mind you. Hospice does wonders in that regard, and morphine is a beautiful thing. He just was in that shadowy land between life and death. Everyone had gathered, and left. Everyone had said goodbye. We’d had our moments of grace and our lovely farewells. It was down to just my mother and me, night after night, praying for his release. And now I finally think I understand it.

He was, at the end, as he was in the beginning: like an infant. And, like infant, he was cared for with the kind of gentleness a mother gives to helpless newborn. The nurses of hospice treated his body with dignity, even when his mind could no longer function, putting lie to the notion that only our brains matter. All of them had stories to tell about their experiences with patients’ visions of the afterlife near death, and none of them was without faith. Each had seen things in their work with the dying that made a lack of faith utterly impossible. You may not be able to say “there are no atheists in foxholes” any more, but I can tell you there are damn few in hospice nursing.

They did all this because it was their job and they were paid to do it, but they did it with a tenderness and compassion that went beyond that: that indicated people with a calling. I helped when and how I could, but they were like a kind of priesthood of care, and they were better when left to do their work the way they knew best.

Curled up in a bed hemmed in by rails like a crib, he was left to their mercies, and mercy he received. They gently washed his body, lotioned his cracked skin, put dressings on his sores, gave him medicine, changed his diapers and his shirt, brushed his hair, and talked to him. They’d moisten his lips with swabs like foam lollipops, and once in a while, to my surprise, he’d move his mouth automatically to suck the water from them.

“Sucking is the first thing we do in life,” a nurse explained, “and it’s the last thing to go.”

And that’s when I began to get it just a bit, maybe. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” We end back and the beginning. My father had lived long and been strong, growing from a helpless child into a soldier, husband, father, builder, and Christian. This man who had given everything he had to others had one last lesson to give: we are not in charge. God comes in His Own time, and in His Own way.

His body was broken for his family, and seeing it there, used up and consumed at the last, he was like a lesson in sacrifice. I could see it in a way I never had before. I could see the scars left by a hard life, and the dignity still remaining in this man created in the image and likeness of his Creator. Life draws away from us with each breath, and sacrifice is implicit in every moment. This is certainly how it should be for a father, and how it was for the Son. Each death is a recapitulation of Calvary, and in suffering we are closest to the cross.

The bodies we have are noble and God-created: enfleshed spirit. They are wombs for the soul to be born into heaven, and one day we will return to these bodies, only to find them perfected.  And after this our exile, we will come face to face with the first fruit of that womb, and there will be neither tears, nor death, nor mourning, nor crying, nor pain.

Requiem Aeternam dona eis, Domine
et lux perpetua luceat eis:
Requiescant in pace. Amen.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • MeanLizzie

    I’m sorry for your trouble, Tom. It’s a terrible beauty, I know.

  • victor

    I am very sorry to hear about your loss, and your family will continue to be in our prayers. Thank you for taking the time and emotional energy, though, today to put these very personal thoughts down… This is the most stunningly beautiful and transcendent thing to read, especially considering the deep stillness it comes from. It does help to make sense and see the purpose of things I would rather not think about. I am personally grateful for this piece, then, and in awe at the life which inspired it. Requiescant in pace.

  • AMoniqueOcampo

    You are definitely in my prayers.

  • Manny

    What a wonderful tribute. My father too lasted days when they said it would be hours. Some people have amazing hearts. As I read this all I could think of was St. Joseph. I bet your father had a lot of St. Joseph in him. My deepest sympathies.

  • Jonathan F. Sullivan

    Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.

    A beautiful piece, Thomas. Know of my prayers for him, for you, and for your family.

  • kmk1916

    God bless you and your family. Very sorry for your loss. He had a wonderful smile!
    You put into words what I thought about my grandfather’s death–it seemed like God allowed him to get rid of all of the vestiges of “self-made-man” pride that might have burdened him.

  • Will Duquette

    Eternal rest grant unto him, oh Lord.

  • Evelyn Lochhead

    Thank you for sharing this. Your family is in our prayers.

  • Marie Dean

    RIP. prayers with all of you

  • Peter

    I thank you for this, Thomas. It brought tears but also a great sense of thanksgiving and gratitude for my own dad who passed some weeks back. The blessings of the God of the Living Covenant be with you and your family.

  • Chris B

    God Bless Tom’s father and Tom and extended family.

    Tom, through your words I re-read the passing of my own father and my tears reflected the beauty and grace of our loving God as we witness the sacrifices made for us on earth.

  • Kevin

    Thank you for this you have put wonderfully into words what I experienced with my father while he was on hospice.

  • Stefanie

    Beautifully written, Tom. I’ve been there, too. Six years since Monday with my mom. Every year — on the day – my dad will call me and we’ll get to talking about those last hospice days at home with my mom. We were blessed to have so much time with her — even after it got tedious–there are too many people who don’t receive that blessing.
    It seems that every death recounted has its own substance, its own heft, if you will, so I always treasure these witnesses to death because I always learn tiny bit more.
    This will be a tender time for you and your mom. She will hear your dad’s voice in your voice more and more. You’ll look in the mirror and see your dad’s face replace your own sometimes and it will startle you because perhaps no one ever made the comment that you looked similar. It’s odd how our parents especially live on in us.
    May God bless your feet, your hand, your head at this time.

  • Leslie Sholly

    Thank you for sharing. This was beautiful.

  • hebbron

    Sincere blessings and peace to you, your dear mother, and all your family,
    Mr. McDonald. You expressed so beautifully what I myself came to realize while caring for my parents, through their illnesses until their deaths. The lessons of grace and acceptance of God’s will during death are God’s gifts to us … the living! Our parents walk that last phase of their journey of life, to their Father, for us! They become God’s instruments. As they “waste away”, the Holy Spirit gives us the grace to accept the Father’s gifts. As with all God-given gifts, it is up to us to see and accept those gifts, OR to remain blind and refuse those gifts. Having shared your daddy’s illness and death, you were reminded of something our secular culture wants us to forget, to deny … that death, is in fact, a part of life.

    Scripture reminds us so very well of the cycle of life, through the birth, suffering, death and resurrection of Our Lord, Jesus Christ Himself,… all done with free-will, love, grace, and acceptance of the will of the Father. Your dear daddy, followed in the footsteps of Jesus. May he rest in the loving peace of the Triune God.

  • PatrioticMom

    What a beautiful article… It has touched me deeply. Thank you for being so open in your time of grief to share with us the lessons you have learned. I will be richer in spirit for it, I know.
    Please accept my heartfelt condolences to you, Tom, and to your entire family; especially your Mom. May your Dad rest in peace in the arms of our Savior.
    God bless you ~ PM

  • Maggie Goff

    I’m sorry that he is gone from you, Tom. I am also grateful for the beautiful words that his passing inspired. Thank you.

  • Mary C Donahue

    May Jesus have mercy on his soul.
    Thank you for writing so beautifully and sharing this journey.

  • Billiamo

    Lovely tribute to a lovely man.

  • hamiltonr

    Beautiful, Tom.

  • Elizabeth

    Wow, some very powerful insight! God is so good! This is an encouragement to all of us who are caring for those who may not even be aware. Just the thought that we are honoring the Creator by doing our best to maintain the dignity for his beloved created until the very end! Blessings to you ~ from a health care professional. ;)

  • Margaret Rose Realy

    The “womb of our soul”…powerful, heartfelt words expressing a terrible beauty. Praying peace for you and your family.

  • Caitlin-Calvin Peck

    You are a very good person. And so is your wife.

  • John Mallon

    Clearly when he said he was talking to “all of them” he was seeing family, loved ones and friends who had gone before him and were waiting for him!

  • Gordis85

    Your Papa had a wonderful smile. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful picture. I am a Hospice Nurse myself and have many experiences of the mystery that is death.

    May your blessing be the courage and the love and the honesty with which you and your mother faced your beloved father’s death. May he rest in peace to contemplate the face of God in eternal joy.

    My prayers for you and your family.

  • deimos19

    that is worth sharing, thank you.
    With the Saints, Give rest, O Lord, to the soul of your Servant, to a place where there is no pain, nor sorrow, nor suffering but life eternal. May his memory be eternal.

  • Kevin Cummings

    Beautifully written. You have honored your father with your words.
    My prayers for you and your family.

  • Susan Windley-Daoust

    May God give your father and family peace…and bless those hospice workers. I know a few and they are a special group of people.

  • gregcamacho8

    Thank you for this, Tom. My prayers are for your father and your family.

  • Dan F.

    In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

    May God bless and comfort you in your grief.

  • Clare Krishan

    Indeed thanks to skilled medical care our ‘final agony’ — the last imitative element of our ‘take up the Cross and follow me’ — can be so well palliated we lose sight of the pascal Mystery rhythm of Triduum (perhaps had Jesus been administered morphine that fateful night under the olive trees he would have slumbered right through Passover?) Good Friday’s death on the cross was considered ‘quick’ by the execution standards of the day, less than 24 hrs after last food-by-mouth, while Christ promised not to drink of the chalice again until our heavenly reunion, not even sucking the vinegar-soaked sponge on a hyssop branch customarily offered to revive – and thus extend the public ordeal – of those crucified. I couldn’t reply to previous post on your papa’s wish for you to make his final arrangements so I’ll append a wee p.s. “interment” no -n- (committal into ‘terra’ earth) is the proper spelling — Chuckle! The three rites are parts of one whole liturgical action, animating the passover hope we all share with the soul of the deceased in subsidiarity of community of the Holy Spirit (the home, the church, the cemetery) awaiting Jesus in eternity Having the wake or vigil an the night before is special to a funeral like the arrival of the star over Bethlehem is special to Christmas! (it needn’t be a chore or drudge if we approach it that way)

  • Corine Erlandson

    Dear Thomas McDonald, Thank you for your beautiful essay about your father. My husband and I have parents, ages 85 and 89, who are not dying yet, but it could happen sooner than we think. Your description of your father reminded me of my father who was also in construction. You have given me a new perspective, a more spiritual perspective, that in the dying, even in the ordeal of dying, there is much life. Thank you so much for your life-affirming essay. –Corine Erlandson

  • Jakeithus

    As I approach the 1 year anniversary of my own father’s death, I’m able to take great comfort and encouragement from your thoughts at the passing of your dad. Thank you so much for putting them down, and I hope God’s peace and comfort will be made fully revealed to your family.

    You are right in saying there is something mystical about death, and it truly makes clear the dignity and value that God has placed in the body and soul of every person. Being able to help my own father into bed for the last time was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had, and truly showed me the gift God gives to those who care for those whose time left in this world is short.

    God Bless.

  • Anthony Tan

    Thank you for your beautiful sharing. I’m sorry for your loss. May your father’s soul rest in peace. God bless.

  • Cindy

    Dear Tom,
    What a beautiful remembrance of the last days with your father. It brought me to tears, remembering my last days with my Dad. May God bless you and your Mom and family. Your Dad sounds like he was a wonderful man. My Dad died at 89 after surviving a terrible car accident and eventually a heart attack and open heart surgery. He had been in the Army Air Corp during WWII and was proud of his service. He was a Master Machinist/ Tool & Die Maker. He was strict, but I know he loved me. His mind was still sharp, but his body was beaten. Love & Hugs to you and your Mom. P.S. Love the picture of you and your Dad. He reminds me of mine!