by Todd Walker
The reality of life is that death follows. From our first breath, and with each successive stream of air we inhale, we’re one step closer to the end.
For the last three weeks, our family, drenched in emotions, watched Dirt Road Girl’s father die. Tuesday morning we lost a loving husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. The Greatest Generation lost another patriot and hero. I lost a wise and faithful friend.
Dealing with death is hard. You’re never ready even if you know the great unknown is certain.
Our modern world of convenience insulates us from caring for our dead. The funeral business has replaced what was once the family’s responsibility with all-inclusive services. We’ve been shielded from the details of death and all that goes with caring for the body of our deceased. We’re conditioned to let the professionals handle this final chapter of life and our mortal bodies.
There’s no fault in choosing this option. It’s become automatic to turn this task over to others in our culture. Tending to my dying friend changed my perspective.
At 10 o’clock on his last evening on earth, I administered what was to be his last dose of medicine that the caring hospice nurse had stored in the kitchen refrigerator’s vegetable drawer. It sat next to a partial head of lettuce. The love of his life rubbed his arm, kissed him goodnight, and shuffled down the hall to her bedroom. He punched the TV remote to surf between Monday Night Football and his beloved Braves ’til 11.
When the channel landed and stayed on an old movie, I knew he was sleeping. He woke up when I removed the remote from his hand.
“You ready to go to sleep?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
The living room sofa is really too short for sleeping. I laid there anyway, set my alarm for two-hour intervals, and listened to his labored breathing a few feet down the hall. I feel in and out of sleep and dreams. The alarm was unnecessary.
Before the sun could rise, the silence in his room startled me. He couldn’t be gone I thought. The nurse said he probably had 3 or 4 more days. Never has quietness been so mournful. Time and space disappeared suddenly.
My first hope was that he was finally sleeping soundly. I stood by his bed with my flashlight looking for rhythmic chest movements. If he was sleeping, I didn’t want to wake him. His skin was warm. Eyes shut. His hands crossed his abdomen.
I’ve never had to determine if someone was gone. I checked his breathing and pulse. Nothing.
After 91 years, he departed on his own terms – in his house, with his family. Not in a hospital bed. No amount of caring hospital staff can match the care of his family.
I made calls to family members.
Brooke, our hospice nurse, arrived mid morning to make the official pronouncement and met with our family. Paperwork had to be done to satisfy our human systems.
DRG asked me if would help our nurse if she needed assistance preparing her daddy’s body. A task she nor her brother were emotionally able to do.
“I want to,” rushed from my mouth.
Taking our time, Brooke and I gently and lovingly rolled his body back and forth removing bandages and wiping his body clean. The coldness of his body was absorbed by my loving hands. The strangeness of touching and caring for his body added closure and filled me with emotions out of my realm of expression.
The time was interrupted by moments where emotions breached my levee. Brooke compassionately reassured me that I would cherish this time. She was right.
I kept remembering his hands gripping his golf club sending a dimpled ball straight down the fairway – while his grandson and I tried to stay out of the woods with our shots. And how his once strapping young body flew missions on a B-24 in the second World War – earning him two Purple Hearts. And how he only loved one woman his entire life. And the independent children he raised, one of which became the love of my life. Gratitude, honor, sorrow, peace, loss, and joy spilled from my eyes and soul.
I went to his closet and picked out a green golf shirt. Green for his journey to new life which he’d already taken. Brooke helped me gently slip it over his head and arms. His face was full of peace.
It was a sobering honor to have known you, to care for your body, and show you the fullness of our devotion.
One cannot always be a hero, but one can always be a man.
~ Johann Wolfgang van Goethe
You were both, my dear friend!