Tuesday, February 21, 2006


My faith has always been strong and I have never really feared death - oh, maybe the pain of a head-on collision with a car or semi, the suffocation of drowning, the horrible pain of being caught in a fire, the burning sting of a sniper's bullet that was just a hair off sudden death, or the feel of the life running out of a mangled limb/wound as the result of a rocket/mortar/IED - but having just witnessed a true end-of-life event has strengthen my resolve about passing from this life to the next.

While I still don't want anyone to have to feed me or wipe and clean my butt either at home, in hospice or hospital care, or in a nursing home, I see now, that if it has to be, that dying at home, surrounded by loved ones, can be a touching experience for all concerned.

We buried my 81 year old step-father today, which culminated a seven month odyssey of short lived hopes and depressing realizations. His diagnosis of lung cancer seemed immediately to seal his fate, but chemo and experimental radio frequency treatments gave false hope of complete victory over the condition. Finally the doctors got real and told us there was nothing more they could do, and we brought him home.

Weakened from the treatments, he continued to decline until in the last three months he was bed ridden. They sent him home doped to the max and he could not respond in any way. We decided to stop the medication to see what his reaction was. The result was he began to talk, to recognize his surroundings and the people that came to see him. He even fed himself for a time, but continued to eat what was offered right up until the day before he died.

Covenant Home Care Hospice (out of Oak Ridge, TN) came M-W-F to clean him and change his linens, clothes, and catheter. They are wonderful God and people loving folks. It was obvious they cared for my step-father and soon became welcome visitors to my mother's home. They are to be commended. We expected the usual routine hospital or nursing home "it's just a job" care, but they were exceptional. His nurse even prayed over him and talked to him like he was a member of her own family. Real tears fell from her face on to his bed at the end - she truly loved her God, her job, and “her” people.

As time passed from October into January of this year, my step-father sank slowly into the abyss of knowing nothing. The Bible says "the dead know nothing, they are asleep" and during the last two or three weeks he entered this state.

We go full circle. We come into this world completely dependent on others to feed, clean, and protect us. If we make it to old age, we go out in the same manner. My step-father could do nothing for himself. He was on brain auto-pilot. He was cleaned, changed, wiped, and feed without real knowledge of what was happening. If you touched his lips, he opened as if was a little bird in a nest. He slowly moved the food around and finally swallowed. Medicine was administered the same way, crushed and put in yogurt.

On the last morning around 3AM his breathing became very labored and forceful. His chest rose and fell rapidly in short shallow breaths and a horrible gurgling, as if drowning, came from his throat. If you were watching, you wanted to cough up, swallow, breathe for him, but he was on his own. There is nothing you can do and you feel pain for him. However, I finally realized that it was only the brain that was fighting for life. My step-father was already gone and not in pain at all. There were no grimaces of pain, no expressions at all, just the body fighting to preserve itself.

His body continued to fight for breath through the gurgling from 3 until around 5AM. All the while, as directed, we administered morphine sulfate with a dropper to his mouth. This was a futile effort to calm his breathing. He could not swallow, but the body absorbs most meds through the membranes in the mouth.

Finally, at about 5 the gurgling stopped and his breathing began to be deep and slow. The breaths continued to get further apart, shorter, and shallower.

My mom held his hand and spoke to him. I was supporting my mom, with my arm around her shoulder, while two neighbor ladies looked on. They all spoke to him from time-to-time, one encouraging him to "give it up, let it go".

Finally, at 5:40AM he "gave it up". His breathing stopped and after a couple of auto-response gasp, his heart stopped.

My step-father had died at home, surrounded by those that loved him and my mother. He felt nothing consciously. The only pain was that which those watching felt.

My mom had considered sending him to a hospice center during the last two weeks, but no one would have been with him with this much compassion. We would have missed a blessed experience that bonded the four of us forever. She made the right decision.

I do not want to be in a nursing home and I do not want anyone to have to care for me as they did my step-father. However, if circumstance dictates that has to happen, I would like to be at home surrounded by caring people. Selfishly for me, I will not be there to share the experience. My essence will be with God.

Some have said they want to stare death in the face when it comes. However, in order to do that you must meet that oncoming car/semi, feel that bullet, or worst. Most deaths come to an unconscious mind.

I do not fear death. It is part of life, but the sting has been removed.

God bless those that are experiencing this even as you read.

1 comment:

Fathairybastard said...

Very good post. Have seen this myself on a few occasions. An uncle, my grandfather, and my grandmother. Was never in the room when they passed, but right after. My family got the call in the wee hours that my grandmother passed. The sentiment at the time was that it was too bad it had taken so long for them to go, but the way you describe it makes it seem less painful.

I'm with you; no tubes for feeding, catheters, or nursing homes. Just friggin' shoot me and divide up my gear.