Some of my readers may have noticed a dip in writing production over the past few weeks. Honestly, the past few weeks were some of the most difficult weeks of my life. Watching a loved one suffer and eventually die can make one question their faith in a loving God. If anything, my experience over the past few weeks has done nothing but prove God’s love to my father and my family. Allow me to share with you a reflection on suffering and the end-of-life grace our family recently experienced in and around my father’s passing.
My father lived for seventy-seven years. Born in 1946, he was one of the first “baby-boomers.” In fact, the difference in age between my father and eighty-year-old uncle reflects the time my grandfather spent in Europe during World War II (minus nine months). During Vietnam, my father (also named Dennis) spent five years in the Navy on the aircraft carrier USS Ranger as a damage control specialist (firefighter). After his time in the Navy, he met my mother, got married, and started a family. This family eventually disintegrated in 1988. After the divorce, he received custody of me and my sister. A few years after I graduated from high school, he moved to Iowa and remained there until I moved him in with my family two weeks before his death.
My Relationship with My Father
Growing up, I shared a name with my father, but thought we were very different people. He was a very “salt-of-the-earth” type of person. In his youth and middle-age, he loved hanging out with friends, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, Iowa Hawkeye football, Angel’s baseball, and the LA Rams. He was also very responsible, as in he always repaid his debts no matter how large or small. He believed in duty, honesty, and hard work. Growing up, he was not a “touchy-feely” father. He also worked 2nd shift (3 PM to 11 PM) most of my young life, so I rarely saw him, except for weekends. We did not say “love you” or hug growing up. In other words, we were not very close. However, as we both grew older, we did grow closer in understanding and respect for one another.
On June 1st, I received a call from Life Alert notifying me that he fell. Over the next few days, we decided the best course of action was to move him in with my family in Texas. I flew out to Iowa and spent the next week preparing for the move. Furthermore, seeing him in such a weakened state shocked me. He had lost much of his muscle mass and looked gaunt. I attributed this to a bout of COVID he experienced in February of this year. The doctors at the VA also shared this view during his last doctor’s visit in Iowa. The lack of strength meant he could not stand up on his own, put his feet on the bed, or even change his clothes. All these “transitions” required my assistance, plus preparing meals. Added to all of this, he suffered from congestive heart failure, COPD, and diabetes.
I must quickly mention my father’s neighbors. During his final week in Iowa, I was constantly asked how “Dennis was doing.” Before I got there, these same neighbors looked out for him, drove him to appointments, shopped for him, and made sure he had what he needed. They truly loved and cared for him.
The Big Move
Moreover, on June 10th, I loaded up my father’s truck with some of his belongings and headed south to Texas. A trip that usually takes eleven hours took twice as long due to my father’s poor health. During the trip, we did devise the ideal method to transition him from one place to another. This involved me standing in front of him with him placing his arms around my shoulders and neck. I then put my arms under his armpits and stood up. Since I am four inches taller than him, the motion was quite effortless, with all the weight taken by my legs. Since my father could not stand, through our embrace, I stood for us both. We eventually made it home late on June 11th tired and more than a little frustrated. This was mostly due to non-stop torrential rain. Over the next week, we got him situated in his new room.
We got his TV hooked up so he could watch Bluebloods and CSI NY (his favorite shows). I also got his DVD player hooked up so we could watch Facing Nolan and The Eagles Live in Australia. Both raised his spirits tremendously, as his favorite baseball player was Nolan Ryan and his favorite band The Eagles. Seeing and reconnecting with his grandchildren also gave him much needed joy. Little did I know that the time was short in our home…
The Final Fall
On Father’s Day 2023, my father fell while using his walker to use the restroom. Fearing he had broken his hip, we called 911 and he went to the emergency room. After an x-ray and CT scan of his hip, the worst news came back— possible cancer. He also had excess fluid on his right lung. He was admitted that night to the oncology unit. In the hospital, he received excellent care. They drained his lungs of fluid, which gave him much needed breathing relief. He also ate more during his time there than at any time during the previous two weeks. We called all his friends from Iowa, his brother, my sister, and his first love who he has remained friends with for over sixty years. The day before he passed, he got to speak with my youngest daughter who also shares his red hair and blue eyes…I left my father with a “see you tomorrow” and left him to rest.
The Final Day
It all started as I left work around 4:30 PM. My phone blew up with multiple calls from the hospital. They all stated the same thing: my father did not have long. They placed an oxygen mask on him, which basically breathed for him, to give us more time to say our goodbyes. I arrived first, then my wife and two older children. Still teens, I was extremely proud of them for joining in the last moments of their grandfather’s life. Through a deacon friend, I was able to contact our parish priest. He arrived twenty minutes later to bless my father and pray with our family. Once he left, I instructed the nurses to remove the mask. As he breathed his last breath, I played his favorite song—Hotel California. As the dueling guitars ended, the song ended, and my father passed into eternity. We all wept and said our final goodbyes.
A Reflection on Suffering and End of Life Grace
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Romans 5:2-5
Please forgive the long intro before the reflection. It seemed necessary for the context of my reflection.
To start, grace saturated every aspect of the last month with my father. Since the night of the Life Alert, God’s grace was made manifest in small and extraordinary ways. For example, with the assistance of my father’s friends as we prepared to move. They always offered to help and had encouraging words. Or the time we needed a portable oxygen machine and one showed up. I thought dad was dreaming when he said a guy was coming over to drop one off. Nope. He called again and scheduled a time with me. Grace presented itself again on our last day at home together watching the Eagles and the documentary about Nolan Ryan. It again presented itself on our trip to Texas, as we embraced every time he transitioned from wheelchair, to toilet, to wheelchair, to truck, to bed, etc. He even asked how I got “such broad shoulders.”
Furthermore, grace was present in the quick response of our priest, his anointing of my father’s head, and the prayers we prayed over him. His grace shone most clearly through the presence of my wife and older teenage children in the room as he passed. Finally, God’s grace was present in an inspiration to play his favorite song (Hotel California) as he passed on.
When seen through the eyes of faith, my father’s last few weeks of life were marked by a very uncommon grace. I hope others are granted the same gift I was when their loved ones pass on to eternity. Amen.
Read my other writing here.