The Chance for a Better Goodbye

The post Too Soon brought up the topic of last days. With medical science’s ability, for better or worse, to rescue us from the bodily failures that swiftly took our ancestors to their graves without an adjustable bed or plastic water pitcher in sight, more of us will experience a last day or last week with our parents. Their doctors or caregivers will tell us the end is approaching, and we will have the opportunity to choose how to spend that remaining time.

And it is an opportunity. I am immensely grateful for having a last day to say goodbye to my dad, a gratitude felt even then. Because I knew the painful opposite: a sudden death.

One day my mother was alive. Then there was a nighttime phone call, and I learned she was dead. Mom, leaving us old style. The experience was jarring, and the stages of grief emerged so strangely because the shock had to fade before I could really understand how different my life would be without her.

On my dad’s last day, I let my own life pass before my eyes so I wouldn’t forget anything to thank him for. Even though he was unconscious, each time I approached his bedside to share another thought,  I knew he could hear me.  It was there, in that hospital room, that I realized his playing Dixieland jazz while I was growing up led me, decades later, to the music festival where I met my husband. I hadn’t put that together before, and I told him so. He had to be thinking, “Just now figured that one out?”

In between the thank yous and my thoughts about what would happen next and, yes, writing a draft obituary, I knew I would prefer this memory to the one from 15 years earlier where I’m holding a phone and my entire life has just changed. Even though I was in a stark, antiseptic hospital. Even thought I felt nervous that I might see his last breath.

But when I remember my dad’s final weeks and days, I wonder if I was the only beneficiary of that last day.

Not long before, one of the doctors admitted that my dad could have died over a month earlier, during the first nights after his surgery. The ICU team had pulled him back to this side of life…by giving him the drug that ultimately ended his life.

Was this a good thing?

My dad could have skipped two trips to the emergency room and multiple internments in the hospital interspersed with frustrating days at home where he could barely walk down the hall much less heat up a can of soup to feed himself. He could have been spared the sensation of his lungs literally tightening, giving him less and less air each day like a toothpaste tube pushed to its final limits. His friends could have said goodbye to the stocky, strong man they remembered, not the one coming in at 138 according to the digital readout at the end of his hospital bed.

Could there really be an upside?

Perhaps it’s this: my dad had the chance to tell me he was dying. As described in Almost Last Words, I didn’t believe him at the time. But that conversation did prepare me, at some level. It prepared him, too. We both knew how much worse a quick departure would be.

So, maybe the time for transition served us both.

All I can do is hope so, because it was a gift to me.

Photo courtesy of olovedog, freedigitalphotos.net

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