Face of Death

He walked out the door and never looked back.  Resolute.  He had wanted the kids to make the trip with him.  They had chosen not to.  I knew his disappointment would be short-lived.  The mental picture they would have had would have lasted their life time- which was certain to be longer than the time he had remaining.  I voted with the kids.  I had packed a bag for him: several changes of clothes, tooth brush, hair brush, shampoo, razor- everything you’d take for a trip.  I carried it out. He walked to the car under his own strength- which was minimal- all bundled up against the cold.  He had no body fat to warm him.  It was less than a mile from our house to the hospice house.  A very short trip.  But yet so long.

“Would you like me to take you to Wyoming?”  I asked as we were headed down the hill.  I was driving.  Jeff hadn’t had the strength or concentration to drive for many months.

“I would like to go to Wyoming again.  But I think I would die getting there.”

Silent pause.  Quiet words, “The result will be the same regardless of which way we go.  I’m willing to take you wherever you would like to go.”  Pause- sitting at the light- turn right to the hospice house or left to Wyoming.

“I want to die here.”

“OK”- turn right.

We got him settled in his room.  First room on the SW corner of the building.  He changed into hospital pants and a T-shirt- the only thing he used from the many changes I’d brought for him.   Peggy, his hospice nurse, was there.  Sheila was there.

Sheila.  What a gift from God she was to me!  She’d been closer to Jeff than to me during our academy days.  We were friends back then- but we were on different wave lengths.  We’d lost touch over the years but had reconnected October 2007 at our class reunion.  That reconnection came just two months before Jeff’s diagnosis of cancer.  Without that reconnection I would never have thought to call on her.  And she turned out to be my steady hand of support and reminder of the love of God through the path that we had to take.  She was always ready to share a Word of Truth.

Back at the hospice house- The Monarch.  Kids came to visit Friday evening.  They didn’t stay too long.  There weren’t any tubes, monitors or IV’s connected this time like there were most times when Jeff was away from home.  Just lying in bed.  Talking.  But what do you talk about?

Company came Saturday.  Jeff’s cousins.  They talked about fun things they did growing up.  Remembering.  I couldn’t stay in the room all the time.  They were laughing.  Laughter is good.  But what about the elephant in the room?  What about the fact that everyone knew this would be the last visit they had together?  Would no one talk about that?  The heavy weight of it all made it hard for me to breathe.  I had to get some air.

Sunday came.  Jeff was very tired.  He had spent more awake time the day before than he had on any given day for months.  “I can sleep when I’m dead.”  he said.  He struggled to stay awake.  The kids were there most of the day.  There were many different rooms we could use at the hospice house.  They didn’t have to stay in Jeff’s room all the time.  They could get out and breathe when they needed to, play with toys, watch TV or sit by the fire.  They went to get flowers in the afternoon and brought them to Jeff’s room to brighten it up.

Monday came.  We really didn’t know how this was all going to go.  We had closed his bile drain tube Friday before he showered in preparation for his trip.  It had taken him all morning and part of the afternoon to have the energy to complete his shower and shave.  The drain had been his life-line.   His bile duct had scarred closed after his last major surgery in August 2009.  An external drain had been inserted.  We’d been changing dressings and emptying it at least twice daily ever since.  We’d tried to close it in the past, hoping it would drain the right way.  But it never worked.  His bilirubin would climb and a new drain would have to be inserted and the process started all over again.  The bile had changed from thick, dark and oily to thin, brownish and with flecks of tan tissue.  The interventional radiologist had told us in January those flecks we saw were pieces of his liver- destroyed by the cancer and coming out a little at a time.  Jeff had been able to eat nothing but cream soups for a couple of weeks.  He got a cup or so down on a good day.  He looked and felt like he was starving to death.  His legs hurt.  He was filling with fluid.  Now it was moving to his abdomen.  He could have taken diuretics.  But that would have meant he would have been going to the bathroom a lot.  He had no energy for that.  So a catheter would have been required.  Why?  Why do that?

We had talked it over the Wednesday night before.  He was so miserable.  I reminded him we could close the drain if we wanted to.  “What would happen then?”- he wanted to know.  “Your bilirubin would rise, you would become toxic and go into a coma.”  “How long would that take?”  “Probably a few days.”  “Would that be playing God?”  “Were we playing God when we inserted it?”  Tough questions.  Tough decisions.  No right answers.  Cancer was consuming his body. A bile drain was not going to save him- but might prolong the process.  The bile drain had also removed the bile which is necessary to process nutrition from food.  A blessing and a curse.  He had chosen to close the drain.  It was no longer needed.  And God is SO good!  We had tried and failed to close his tube so many times before.  This time was different.  The bile didn’t back up.  It went the right direction.  God let us know He was in charge.  Not us.  He took that burden from us.  But now what was going to happen?  We didn’t know.

Our daughter stayed at the hospice house Monday.  Our son went to school.  Sheila was by my side- always.  Our son and his cousins came by after school Monday.  After a while it was time for them to go.  They all lined up to give Jeff hugs and kisses.  Our son was last in line.  He didn’t want to kiss Daddy- he was scruffy.  Jeff was always very particular about his clean shave.  Jack didn’t want to kiss that scruffy face.  I insisted- “You kiss your Daddy- on his forehead then.  It’s not scruffy there.”  So he did.  Jeff promised him, “The next time you see me, Buddy, I’ll be shaved up, OK?”  “OK. Bye Dad.  Hope you feel better.”  Jack always added that on.  “Hope you feel better.”  I’d been hearing it nearly every day for more than two years from my little boy.  “Hope you feel better, Daddy….”

I thought Jack had understood.  We’d been very honest with the kids regarding what we knew to be true.  We tried very hard not to weigh them down with what we feared to be true- but stuck to the facts with them.  We didn’t hide truth- knowing that would only make it harder when truth showed up.  But Jack hadn’t understood.  When I told the kids Jeff was going to the hospice house, Jack wanted to know if Jeff would be at his birthday party.  His birthday is in April.  This was March.  I told him I didn’t think so.  “WHAT?  You mean they are never going to let him out of there??”  “That’s not it, Honey.  Daddy is going to die.  He won’t be at your birthday party because he will be dead.  He won’t be here.”

Back to Monday- the kids left.  Jeff decided he should get up, shower and shave.  I protested.  The shower was in a large bathroom.  There was no heater in there.  It would be too exhausting.  How about he use the tub room?  It was in a small room that could be heated to a toasty warmth.  There was a hand held shower attachment he could use to wash his hair.  It was arranged so other people could assist without getting soaked themselves.  He finally agreed to that.  I let the nurses know to get things warming- he was going to clean up.  The hospice nurse, Peggy from Asera Care, stopped in the room on her way out.  “See you tomorrow.”

Not ten minutes had gone by when Jeff started shaking uncontrollably. “Get me some blankets- I’m cold.”  Piled the blankets on.  “I’m too hot.  Take some blankets off.”  Took some off.   Still shaking- now worse.  And he was getting very hot.  I texted Peggy.  “Come back- going bad”.  She called.  “Have the nurses give him his Dilaudid and Ativan.”   Ten more minutes passed.  Worsening.  Now his whole body was tightening up, his jaw was clenched.  He pleaded through his teeth “Can’t they give me something else?”  He’d had a couple seizures before.  They’d lasted no more than a minute.  After the first one he said, “I never want to have another one of those in my life!”  This one was not letting up despite the usual medication and even more medication.  Twenty minutes had passed of pure torture for both of us.  Peggy arrived.  “The only thing we can do is sedate him.”  “Do it!”  We’d talked about this beforehand.  One of the blessings of hospice care.  They make you think through the ugly facts ahead of time.  “Do it!”  They dripped the medicine between his teeth.  It was not instant relief.  Peggy asked me to go in the hall with her.  “Your eyes are showing fear.” she said.  “Get yourself together and show faith or you will have to leave the room.  You are not helping him.”  I was stunned.  I aimlessly wandered to the fireplace room.  And sobbed.  Peggy came in a few minutes later.  “He’s resting now.”  “Can I go see him?”  “Yes.”  “I’ve had my last conversation with him, haven’t I?”  “Yes.”  “OK.”

I went to his room.  He was breathing loudly, exerting all the muscles he had in his upper body.  His eyes were shut.  I took his hand.  Sobbing.  Stroked his scruffy face.  “Just go to sleep, Honey.  It’s OK.  You are going to see Jesus’ face.  You are going to eat from the Tree of Life.  And it’s going to taste GOOD!  Let it go.  Rest now.”  I heard a raspy whisper.  “What are they saying?”  I was shocked!  “What?!”  It was Jeff, eyes open, talking to me.  “What are they saying?” he repeated. Translation- “Give me a run-down of my medical status.”  I could not believe it.  He was supposed to be in a medicated coma and he was talking to me.  Deep sigh, pull myself together, focus, present the truth.  “Well, your heart rate is up, your blood pressure is down, you have fluid in your lungs and your fever is high.  They don’t expect you have long.”  “OK.”  And he pursed his dehydrated, cracked lips to give me a kiss.  And he closed his eyes.  And kept struggling to breathe.

We had talked a few days before.  Was there anyone else he needed to talk to?  Anyone he needed to resolve anything with?  Were his conversations finished?  They were.  “What about your mom?  Have you said good-bye to your mom?”  “No.  We can’t talk about it.”

Now Jeff could do nothing about it.  He was powerless.  “Ruth,” I said.  “Go talk to Jeff.  He doesn’t feel like he’s finished his conversations with you.  Please go tell him it is OK for him to die.  He needs to hear it from you.”  She went to his room.  Just she and her dying son.  I can’t pretend to imagine what that was like for her.  She came back out about an hour later.  “Did you tell him?”  “No…  I couldn’t.  I THOUGHT it.”  “He needs to HEAR it.  He can’t hear your thoughts.”

The night wore on.  Such effort to breathe.  Brenda, Wes and I were in the room now.  Some healing of wounds was occurring.  “Wes,” I said.  “Have you told Jeff it’s OK for him to die?”  “No- but I can if it’s important.”  “I think it is.”  “OK”  Wes walked to Jeff’s side and took his hand.  Saying that you can say such a thing and actually doing it are two different matters.  Wes fell apart- sobbing.  “Brother, I just want you to know, it’s OK…”  Jeff- who had appeared to be comatosed for hours now- opened his eyes to meet his brother’s gaze and held out his hand to shake his brother’s hand.  We gasped.  He closed his eyes and continued his labored breathing.

Second shift was over.  Third shift was arriving.  The nurses came in to say good-bye.  “Jeff has been such a good man.  We’ve never had a kinder patient.  What a blessing he has been to us.”  One nurse touched his leg.  And he opened his eyes.  And held out his hand for a handshake.  Then closed his eyes and continued his labored breathing.

We sat in his room.  Sometimes talking.  Sometimes just being.  Listening.  Waiting.  He opened his eyes one more time- to wink at his sister.  His dad talked about how much Jeff loved Wyoming.  And Jeff groaned.  I thought it to be coincidence until it happened again, and again.  He did love Wyoming.  But, through the course of cancer, he had grown to love God even more.  Therein was the blessing of cancer.  It had its curses.  But that had been its blessing.  Jeff loved God with all his heart.  He was willing to give up every earthly dream and go tell others of the love of God if He had chosen to heal him.  But He didn’t heal his body.  He healed his soul.  Jeff’s willingness to obey was perfected.  God had completed His work in Him as He promised to do.

Morning light came.  The hospice aid came.  Was there anything she could do?  I wanted to shave him.  I knew Jeff would want that.  I went to his room with the aid.  Got out the razor and stood by Jeff.  His jaw lifting and dropping with every breath.  Neck muscles tightening and relaxing.  Chest heaving.  He had oxygen on now- in hopes he wouldn’t struggle so hard for every breath.  I wanted to shave him.  But I couldn’t.  I just couldn’t.  I laid by him instead.  But, the position he was in seemed to make him struggle more for his breath.  I got up and we tried to adjust his position.  Didn’t help much.  But I didn’t lay down again.  And I didn’t shave him.  I couldn’t.  The aid left.

Many people were there now.  Pastor Carlson- reminding us of the promises of God.  Lisette- helping plan the service.  Sheila- always Sheila.

Afternoon came.  Really no change in status.  How long would this go on?  Ruth went in the room, again alone with her dying son.  This time she stroked his face and told him it was ok.  And he quit struggling and rested.  We all came to the room.  I stomped my foot and yelled at Death aloud “Oh Death, WHERE is your victory??!!!”  I was angry at Death.  “You think you won?”  I thought.  “You just wait till you meet my GOD!  He’s bigger than YOU!”

Saturday night we had a memorial service of sorts for the kids.  There were a lot of kids.  We had our camping tent set up in one of the rooms at the church.  A fire in the fireplace.  Camp stools.  Marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers.  A table with pictures and outdoor gear.  His sunglasses.  A cap.  Binoculars.  Pastor Carlson was there to give a talk to the kids.  What is death?  What is our hope?  We had a video of pictures set to “I Will Rise” by Chris Tomlin.  He will rise.  This is not the end of his story.  It’s just a pause.  The next part of his story will be much better than the first.

Monday was the funeral.  But, it was a resurrection.  A resurrection for those in attendance.  A chance for them to be born again.

Some days I find it hard to ask “Oh Death, where is your sting?”  Hard because, some days, I feel the sting.  But I believe.  I believe the things we see are temporary.  What God has waiting is eternal.  He will erase the face of death forever and make all things new.  I believe.  And that makes all the difference.

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7 Comments

  1. This was beautiful. I pray that you are stepping into each day with the love and hope that only comes from our Savior.
    May you be blessed exceeding abundant.
    Rhonda

    Reply
    • Rhonda, thanks for reading. God is good. Our one-year mile-stone is next week. We have much to be thankful for.

      Reply
  2. Sherri Ryan

     /  March 4, 2012

    Sylvia:
    I had no idea until just now – the journey God has allowed you and your family to travel. Your story here has seared and broken my heart – reading between the lines, the grief and recognizing God’s grace and mercy in your attitude – and perhaps, also because I’ve known you and I think I knew your husband/family – probably from Helen Hyatt days while I grew up in Lincoln. I think, perhaps, he may have been a classmate of my younger brother….
    You wrote your blog in such a way that I felt a part of it and I can see where you have gotten your spiritual wisdom and strength to smile; today. I pray that God keeps you and your children walking with Him, like Enoch, closer and ever closer, till that day comes when you may reunite at Jesus’ side and all wounds be healed. May you continue to be a blessing to God and to those you touch.

    Reply
  3. Karen

     /  March 4, 2012

    Dear Sylvia,

    I’m sobbing with you while reading this story. Thankfully, this is a story that WILL have a happy ending! The funeral service was so beautiful and gave so much hope in a hopeless world. I still have the invitation letter. You’ll never know until the kingdom what an impact that made. Jeff will be so happy!

    God is our refuge and strength. You are a living witness to this promise.

    Love you,

    Karen

    Reply
  4. Carmella Neft Vail

     /  March 4, 2012

    Such a good man. I am sorry our paths never crossed. I can see why you loved him so and why God loved him so. Carmella

    Reply
  5. You have a very strong family, Sylvia. I’m sorry for the loss of Jeff.

    Anisah (Lisa Haynes from CVA)

    Reply
  6. Sylvia, I am weeping…. Oh, Sylvia, I sometimes imagine what this must be like for you and others, and you helped me see and feel it. I appreciate you sharing these intimate moments with me, with us. I feel beyond blessed and inspired to know Jeff’s last days through you.

    Reply

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