A beautiful ending: One caregiver’s story of courage

No, there isn’t an echo in here – and at least I know that I’m repeating myself: Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is being afraid, but doing it, anyway.

And since tomorrow is “Labor Day,” what better time to talk about “courage and caregiving, caregiving and courage – which comes first?”

I don’t know, and I may never know, but here’s what I do know: They seem to come together – so, how about I get out of the way and let you do the talking? Listen:

“Hi Mark,

I’m realizing already that I have been preparing for Dad’s passing for at least the last two years since my husband and I moved to ————— to be here for my parents ‘for such a time as this’. I also realize that I have been in training during all of this time.

Just three weeks ago I hit my own personal crisis in having to face my fears about whether or not I could handle all of this responsibility that has been entrusted to me. I was afraid that my Mom, Dad’s primary caregiver, would collapse from exhaustion. Then where would I be? What would I do with Dad? What kind of awful decisions would fall on me to make? I did not feel capable. I felt very scared and very inadequate to the task.

Just to refresh your memory, I wrote you a couple of emails recently looking for suggestions on how to get my Dad to shower before my Mom pulled out all of her hair over it. Dad had dementia along with his health problems. I very much appreciated the two thoughtful e-mails you sent me. One of your strengths is your practical wisdom and just plain common sense. Thank you.

Dad passed away at 4:28 p.m. on Friday. As I sit here writing to you on this early Sunday morning I am still amazed that I can say that his passing was beautiful. My Dad was lying in his bed propped up a little on his side to make breathing a little easier (thanks to the awesome Hospice nurse’s suggestion). Mom was in a chair by his side and my brother was sitting in a chair next to her. I was sitting on a little stool at the foot of the bed where I had a full view of Dad’s face. The three of us were actually talking and laughing about one of Dad’s nicknames for me. By this time Dad’s breathing had transitioned from heavy-labored breathing in the morning to a breathing done with about 50% less effort. (Dad’s cause of death is COPD)

Mom kept talking to [my brother] as I watched Dad’s face. There was no tension in his face. He looked relaxed. He also had not spoken since about 5 that morning when one of the last words he spoke was to my Mom and it was ‘Babydoll’. That was the last coherent word that my Mom and I heard him speak.

I was looking right at Dad when he slowly opened his eyes halfway. I looked into his warm brown eyes and I know he was there in that moment. There was the life of Dad in that moment. Then there was a quiet short breath and he was gone. There was silence. In that moment I turned and looked into my brother’s eyes. Then Mom looked over at Dad and knew he was gone. She got up and leaned over Dad and gently closed his eyes, her last act of taking care of him.

My sister came in the room and she cried. My brother was crying and I stood and held onto him. Mark, I strangely did not have any tears in those moments because I was feeling relief. I had been intensely praying all day for the Lord to lead Dad peacefully and gently. The Lord answered my prayers beyond what I could’ve hoped for.

Through the last several days, having never witnessed someone’s death, I have had the fear that Dad’s actual death would be scary. When the end came, however, it was only beautiful. And I have the incredible gift of knowing that there was nothing left undone or unsaid between me and my wonderful Dad. I will be forever grateful to God for this gift, although the gift has included pain, frustration, and sorrow for me to wrestle with. I am just barely beginning to process everything, but, I already know that my life will forever and profoundly be changed by my choice to be in the trenches and care for my Dad and Mom.

P.S. In the last couple of weeks my Dad never took a shower again. The great part is that my Mom stopped nagging him.”

Courage is not the absence of fear – It is the ability to know a “happy ending” when you see one.

Thank you.

Mark Harvey is the director of Senior Information and Assistance for Olympic Area Agency on Aging. He can be reached at harvemb@dshs.wa.gov or 532-0520 in Aberdeen, (360) 942-2177 in Raymond or (360) 642-3634. FACEBOOK: Olympic Area Agency on Aging-Information & Assistance.