Wednesday, February 6, 2008

On The Passing Of My Father – Part I

My sister called to tell me that my father was doing poorly. He turned 94 last November, and actually had been doing poorly for the past five years. I asked if I needed to come right away, imagining in my mind leaving the next morning. She said that I would have to decide for myself, which left me torn as to what to do. I immediately thought of driving, because I hate to fly. I have done enough flying to last me a lifetime, and if I never see the inside of another airplane it will be too soon.

But my wife wanted to come with me, and immediately assumed that we would fly. I reluctantly looked up possible flights on the Internet, only to find that not only were there not any good choices, but all the flights that I could find were apparently full to the point where we would have to sit in different parts of the airplane. This, coupled with the amount of material we would want to take with us, argued decisively for driving. But driving would take five days in the best of times, and January would not be the best of times.

We didn’t leave immediately. Instead, we packed up the car (Toyota 4-Runner 4WD) as if we were leaving, but went to the West Virginia cabin on Friday afternoon, while we waited for further word from my sister. On Monday I went to work as usual, but warned my colleagues that if I didn’t show up on Wednesday (I was taking Tuesday off) it would be because I had left for Oregon.

On Monday evening we decided we would complete all the things we had planned for Tuesday, drive to West Virginia to spend the night in the cabin, and then leave on Wednesday morning for Oregon. My sister was still telling me that I had to decide for myself when to come, but when I told her we would leave on Wednesday, she said she was so relieved.

One of the reasons to go back to the cabin was to collect my laptop to take with us. Having it along meant that we would be able to connect to the Internet each night to collect and send emails, and to check the weather along the next day’s route. I had planned several alternate routes that we could take depending on the weather.

As it turned out, we left in time to move across Kentucky, Indiana, and Missouri just ahead of a winter storm that moved in behind us. Each evening we checked in with the family on the Internet to tell them where we were and examined the probable weather for the upcoming route. I wouldn’t say I was driven, but I did have a certain anxiety to move right along, and it seemed that each day we were just marginally ahead of the bad weather.

Crossing Kansas and Colorado, it was sunny, but we were just a day behind a big storm with lots of wind. We saw five instances of tractor-double-trailer rigs that had the rear trailer blown over by the wind, causing the rigs to end up in the ditch along the road, sometimes with the cab jack-knifed as well. In Wyoming we crossed the almost 9,000-foot pass between Cheyenne and Laramie in sunshine, just ahead of a storm that dumped a lot of snow there. We crossed the 7,000-foot high Wyoming plateau under sunshine, but low temperatures and lots of wind-blown snow across the road. But because the snow was blowing, it gave us no problem, except for a few times that it blew so high that it looked more like fog.

Utah was sunny. Idaho was sunny. The Blue Mountains in Eastern Oregon were terrible. It was cloudy, foggy, and snowing. This 150-mile section was the one I feared the most. All the big rigs had to put on chains, but automobiles were allowed to go without. The road was snow-packed and I was glad for the 4-WD of the Toyota. We actually had no problem here because it was cold enough that the snow was not melting, so it wasn’t particularly slippery. After we got to Pendleton, it was sunny again.

We arrived in Hillsboro Sunday early afternoon (I had scheduled arrival for Monday afternoon, so we were a day ahead because we didn’t hit any bad weather). I went to see my parents that afternoon and found my mother by my father’s bedside, where he was sleeping. He looked very, very frail. My mother hugged me and told me she was so glad that I was there.

On Monday when I went to see them, Dad was sitting up in his recliner chair, which had been moved into his bedroom. Although he was sitting up, he was drifting in and out of consciousness – sort of drowsing. Whenever my sister would talk directly at him, then he would rouse himself and look at her. But he had great difficulty speaking – it seemed like he couldn’t move his lips to make the consonants, and his lack of breath control caused him to sort of huff out each vowel sound. Pat seemed to understand him, though, having had more practice at it than I had.

I was sitting on his bed with my right hand draped over the end. I looked up to see him pointing with his left index finger (one of the ones he had cut off) at the ring I was wearing on my right hand. This ring is the one my mother gave him in 1958, and that he wore for 40 years before he gave to me on my 58th birthday, in 1998. I saw him pointing at the ring, and looked up into his face. He was looking at me and nodded. And for that moment, he was fully present and powerfully THERE. He was the father I remembered, with a little smile on his face, and intelligence in his eyes – I knew exactly what he was thinking. He was telling me as clearly as words that he and I both knew the significance of that ring, just as he explained it to me when he gave it to me.

On Tuesday, we all went to visit them because it was Mom and Dad’s 70th Wedding Anniversary. We took them an ice cream cake to share with all the people there at the home. Again Dad was sitting up in his chair. Because it is more tiring for him to sit in his chair, we were surprised to find him there again on Tuesday. We thought he would be in bed instead. He looked much the same as the day before, dozing and drifting, and from time to time responding to direct questions. As we left, I reached for his hand and said, “I want to say goodbye”. Suddenly he turned and looked me right in the eye, and again, suddenly he was fully present. He looked at me and nodded, and gripped my hand in a very firm handshake.

The next day we had agreed that Pat and Roy would go in the morning to see them, and Carol and I would go in the afternoon. Carol and I were going to the store when my cell phone rang and Pat told me that I had better come now. We were halfway to their home already, so it didn’t take us long to get there. My father was breathing like he had run a long way and was trying to catch his breath again – very labored. I ached to see him like this. For three days I had had a very strong feeling that I should put my hands on his head and give him a Priesthood blessing, and now I asked my mother if she thought that would be all right. She said, “Oh, yes! I would like you to”. I put my hands on his head and released him from the cares of this world. I told him that he should not be concerned about my mother – that we would take care of her. And, I told him to go in peace. About 40 minutes later I heard a sharp change in his breathing. Whereas it had been rather loud, it became almost silent. I looked up from where I was sitting and watched him take one, two, three breaths and then stop. I looked at my watch and saw 40 seconds go by. Then he took another breath and stopped. I counted 30 seconds. Then he took a shallow breath and breathed it all the way out and stopped for good.

My mother dropped her head on her lap and cried bitterly. I have never seen her cry so before. When she could pause, I asked her if she wanted a blessing. “Oh, yes.” I blessed her that at a time of the Lord’s choosing – not now, but at a later time – she would understand why these events happened the way they did, and see the rightness of them. I told her not to be concerned – the Lord held all things in His hand, and all would be made right in the end.

Finally my mother looked up and me and said she wanted to go to her own room. She looked at my father’s body and said, “This is not him.”


tona said...

Dad, this is beautiful. Thanks for writing it. We all wished we could have been there, but it meant everything to Grandma and Grandpa that you and Mom could be there.

Maren said...

Your personal writings are so powerful to me. Thank you for posting this. Even though I knew most of this information already, it makes me cry to read it. Anxiously awaiting further installments.