We’re planning a vacation! Exciting, even if it does involves headstones and burial plots. And, arrangements to make for travel to New Mexico to the cemetery.
It all takes me back to that night three years and eleven months ago.
Did I hear Daddy’s last breath? I’d walked into the living room to close the front door against the evening air that had cooled down the stuffiness of the day’s warmth inside the house and realized that for the first time in nearly three days, Daddy’s loud, raspy breathing had calmed.
Was he breathing? I concentrated to tune out the sounds of Mother clattering dishes in the kitchen as well as the sound of the TV in the dining room and tried to focus on the sounds right where I stood.
The lamps on the sofa end table and on the old sewing machine cabinet next to Daddy’s recliner usually cast a soft, warm glow across the red carpeting and made the brown of the room’s wood trim, the brown of the recliner and the gold, beige and brown of the sofa look comfortable and cozy. Tonight the room they lit was changed as Daddy’s hospital bed, squeezed into the space between the recliner and the sofa, sucked all normality from the room. He lay there just as he had for the last four days. He looked unchanged, his withered, translucent skin pulled tight against shrunken bones, covered by a sheet, he was mostly unmoving, either sleeping or out of it due to the morphine and Ativan that hospice provided for comfort in his last days. The nose plugs of the oxygen tubing were still in place, his mouth open slightly, his eyes closed, his skin color still the slightly yellow pallor it had been for weeks. One thin, stick of an arm was outside the sheet, propped up on one of the pillows that had been placed along his side to keep him from wounding himself on the bed rails. His skin was so fragile, it didn’t take much pressure to cause bruising and bleeding.
It had been four days since he’d wanted any water or food. The last time he tried, it just wouldn’t go down. The only thing that had been easy about his care since then was using the medicine dropper to put the drugs in his mouth to keep him comfortable.
In the few weeks that he was failing and able to do less and less for himself, we’d talked about the future and how he’d always planned to be there for Mother to the very end and how he would have to leave her now, when he didn’t want to leave her alone. We talked about the things I would need to do to keep the house running and Mother able to stay in her home. We talked about when he needed medication, what I could do to help him get from the bed to the wheelchair to the recliner to the wheelchair to the table. He was responsive and mostly clear headed. One of the effects of liver cancer is its effect on the brain and every now and then he would seem confused but for the most part he was lucid and knew who he was and who we were and what the daily issues were.
He was six weeks away from his eighty-ninth birthday and I would be surprised if there was a time in all those years that he was unmotivated. Even as he got weaker, he got up every morning with a purpose. That habit was hard to break. It had just been five days earlier that he woke and sat up in the hospital bed in the morning and tried to get up. I helped him dress and then said,
“Daddy, this is all further you have to get up. Why don’t you just lie back down?”
“Oh.” He said. “All right.”
That was the last morning he spoke clearly and the last time he tried to follow his normal morning routine. There was no fear on his part that he was leaving, no anxious grasping on to life. There was never any regret on his part for the life he’d lived, because he lived it honestly and fully, every day. He had nothing to confess, nothing to make right. He’d done that along the way. He’d invested himself fully in serving the God that he knew loved him and there was no doubt that God was waiting for him, as soon as his last breath in this life was expended.
Was this his last breath? His chest seemed to contract and there was a slight hissing sound from him mouth, then he was still. I moved closer to the bed and laid my hand on his skin. Warm. His chest did not move again. There was no sound of air moving.
In the couple of hours that followed, Mother and I sat down to eat the dinner she’d been preparing. We knew we had to have food to get us through. Then I called all the family and Hospice. Hospice sent a nurse who verified he had died and she called Loma Linda University where he had donated his body to science.
It was a hard night and the next day was torture. Mother and I were exhausted and emotionally spent, yet the phone didn’t stop ringing, one niece came over and people from the church came. Mother and I have said since, that if we could have, we would have taken that day away from everyone and everything. The next day, we were back to normal and able to go on with plans.
Plans were fairly simple because it would be about two years before Daddy’s cremated remains would be released from the teaching hospital. It was Daddy’s idea to donate their bodies to science, both because it was such an inexpensive way to take care of remains and because he liked the idea that even after his soul was bounding across heaven in a new heavenly body, his old body here just might do someone, somewhere, some good.
His remains were released last year and they wait patiently on a shelf at the funeral home. We know he is not there. He has begun eternity with Jesus in heaven and is unbothered that a few ashes are yet to be buried. Mother has not felt physically able to make the eight hundred mile trip, but now she says it’s time, so we will choose headstones and go to see his remains interred in the plot in the small country cemetery where so many other Deans and Jones remains lay.
Daddy’s children, my brothers and my sister, will come from Texas and Tennessee and northern California to join us there and we’ll reminisce and laugh and play together and have a vacation away from our daily lives and Mother will bask in the attention of being surrounded by her children. And I’ll have a vacation from being her sole caregiver.
We’ll need each other as we stand by that cemetery plot and see the headstone set and are reminded again of our loss and finality of what life comes to in this world. Ashes. Buried in a plot of ground. And we’ll joy at the thought that one day we will all be together again, our souls unfettered by any loss or pain. We’ll go on from there to continue life, living out the legacy our loving, faithful, funny, intelligent, caring Daddy gave us: love God, love each other and live life fully.