Today is not just Father's day for me. It is also the anniversary of my father's death. On June 17Th 2005, I lost my father to cancer. The cancer had not been caught early enough and there was nothing that could be done to save his life. The only treatment the doctors offered was to possibly extend his life a little longer. But it was feared that in his weakened condition even the treatment might kill him. My father chose to have no further treatment. He saved us, his children, from a terrible decision. He said simply, that he had a good long life and he accepted the fact that his life was ending.
He was eventually moved to a hospice unit in a nursing home in his home town, but while he was still at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis I went to visit him. I think it was the first time I had been there with him by myself. It was uncomfortable and I didn't know what to say. I think I said something stupid like "how are you?" I don't remember exactly. However, I do remember his response. He told me he was lonely. Then I really didn't know what to say. I had never talked with my Dad much. I had always been more comfortable talking with my mother. His words stayed with me as I left the hospital that day.
The doctors had estimated that he had probably six months to live. But, we were all surprised at how quickly his health began to fail. He had only been in the nursing home a couple of weeks when I got the dreaded call that I needed to come. They had been unable to wake him that morning. Even the hospice nurses were surprised. It was a two hour drive for me. I had picked up my oldest brother Paul and we got down there in record time. But, before we got there my brother Arno had been able to wake him. All of his children were able to make it there in time to say goodbye.
The next day he had slipped further and this time we couldn't wake him. Family and friends moved in and out of his room. I can remember crying on the shoulder of my best friend from high school. She was working at the nursing home and I hadn't seen her in probably twenty years. But, she showed up just in time when I needed her.
At some point during that long afternoon I made a decision. I am not sure how, but I knew that this would be his last day. I decided to stay with him. I remembered that day in the hospital a couple weeks before. I did not want him to die alone. People tried to tell me that he could linger for a while and that I really didn't need to stay, but I knew, and I was staying.
My sister-in -law Jane decided to stay with me. I mainly just sat by his bed and talked to him. The words I couldn't find a couple weeks before were there. I know he heard me. At one point I was telling him that we kids all learned to swear from him. He never swore in front of us. But, when he was milking his cows he would sometimes let loose a string of choice profanity. My siblings and I would be sitting at the back door listening. Jane, who had been sitting on the other side of the bed, started to laugh. She told me that when I said we were all listening, he kicked. I laughed as well and quickly reassured him that God wouldn't hold it against him.
As the night progressed Dad seemed really restless and I thought he might be in pain. I got the nurse to increase his medication. She told me he probably wasn't in pain with all of the medication he had received. She said that the reason he might be restless was because, "dying was hard work!"
I continued to talk to him, but I was running out of things to say. So I tried think of a time in his life when he would have been relaxed. My Dad was a farmer and I remembered on the first farm that we lived on, there was a field with mile long rows. As it was early June, I tried to think what he would have been doing if he were still farming. I came up with "cultivating the corn." I asked him to picture himself on his tractor on a sunny, June afternoon driving down those long rows. He was out of the house away from his seven, noisy children, it was peaceful. He was just driving his tractor. After that, every time he started to get restless, I talked to him about being out in that field. I might have just imagined it, but it seemed to help.
About 10 pm he suddenly fell into a deep sleep. His breathing was normal again and he seemed almost relaxed. I stopped talking and Jane and I moved to a small table at the foot of his bed. We started to play cards as my Dad started to gently snore. Just before midnight I began to doubt that it would happen that night. Then he made a funny sounding noise and then nothing.
I came back around to his side and grabbed his hand. It seemed almost like I could feel him leaving. I also sensed the very strong presence of several departed family members, most strongly were my grandfather and my aunt who was also my godmother. There was almost a joyous, welcoming feeling. To this day I cannot adequately describe it.
We got the nurse on duty and it was confirmed. My father was pronounced dead shortly after midnight. As I drove away from the nursing home that night I knew I should be grieving, but I wasn't. I was happy for him. He was no longer in pain and he was with his family. I had shared it with him. He was not alone.
Two days later on a Sunday, I was trying to write his eulogy. It suddenly occurred to me that it was Father's Day. That night at the nursing home was my final and possibly the best gift I could have given him. I gave him my time.
Happy Father's Day, I miss you!