My dad continues to get closer to Heaven every day (as we all do). He was admitted to hospice care about 8 weeks ago after a long illness of Alzheimer’s. Even though I’ve learned a great deal about the death and dying experience, I can’t give any advice to anyone about how to go through this process. Almost 30 years ago I took a Death and Dying course in college, which was based on Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ research. I know there are 5 stages of grieving but everyone’s situation is unique and comes with its own set of issues/problems/concerns. All I can say is that I now can better understand those people who have lost a parent. I can now offer sympathy in a way that I never could before. Until you go through it, you may mean well, but there’s absolutely no way whatsoever to relate to what they are going through. You won’t understand this until your parent is dying. For me, it’s in a way that is observable daily, when no words can pass between us and all I can do is sink into my Dad’s eyes. It’s so sad, and yet, I’m so privileged to be able to observe death happening this up close. As an artist, one who has spent years closely observing, I look at his frail body, his eyes and I analyze what’s different from week to week. It’s scary and interesting; sad and happy. I’ve considered doing a photo essay on this end process of aging, but I haven’t been as brave as Phillip Toledano.(*Note: This is a must see!)
Several years ago, when his disease was first diagnosed, I did a series of four large, charcoal drawings of his gardening tools. I have many memories of him working in his garage with saws and hammers; hoes and rakes. I’m sure this influenced my study and love of art, especially sculpture. His tools, hanging on stained pegboard, were symbolic of him and I wanted to document them before they were gone through an estate sale or passed down to friends and family.
Many people never get to watch death happen this closely in front of their eyes. With a child’s curiosity I’ve watch a butterfly’s wing flap for the last time on the edge of a hot patio. I’ve watched three pet cats die and each time it broke my heart. Every day I feel my heart about ready to collapse, and every day I wake up and I’m still here and decisions have to be made. I’m praying that my gray hairs won’t start yet, but they might. I find I’m spending more and more time with my brother, his wife and my niece and nephew. It is such a blessing. There’s simply no one else who can relate so fully to my pain and my joy. It took me many years to realize this, but I’m making up for lost time.
After telling a dear friend (who recently lost her own mother) about my situation and feelings, she wrote me a beautiful letter. With her permission, I am publishing the words she wrote to me:
“It’s incredibly hard to see a parent gradually age and die. In some ways, I think it is God’s mercy. It doesn’t seem merciful because of the inevitable deterioration of the body and the physical pain our parent(s) have to endure, but in some ways, it prepares them to die. They become tired of this life and are “ready to go”. It also helps prepare the siblings and family because it is painful to watch parents deteriorate and suffer. One also becomes “tired” of the stress of worrying or caring about the aging parent, even if one isn’t the main caretaker. It is hard to make future plans (Should I take this trip? Should I move?). It is mentally tiring to worry about them. (Should I go see them this weekend? Do they have what they need?) Both parent and children feel “on hold” with their lives.
There are also the “false alarms.” Sometimes a trip to the hospital that seems like the “last time” ends up not being so because often, meds and trained caregivers perk them up again. And the cycle starts all over. The merciful part is both parent and adult children have a chance to say good-by. By the time the end really DOES arrive, there is often a great sense of relief….and grief, of course. It is interesting how one is always surprised at death. You know it is coming but it is always a shock when it arrives.
One can make the argument that an unexpected death is easier, but those in that situation often feel like there wasn’t enough time to say “good-by.” Although they circumvent the TIRING cycle of watching the deterioration…and the expense…and the guilt, etc. but there is that feeling of “too soon,” “wish I had done,” “wish I had said,” Although the death of an aged parent causes a “personal grief”, everyone realizes that it is a natural state of affairs. It’s not like a child dying prematurely or a healthy person taken by a tragic event. When people age, they die. This is the cycle of life.”
As I’ve watched and waited, I realize, even without words, he is still teaching me things. Life is precious; don’t waste it. Make the most of it. Do all you can to help the worlds’ hurting people by loving in the way that only you can do. Have no regrets. Count your blessings. Go after your dreams. Love as big as you can and learn to receive love. Sometimes there’s not a second chance. Don’t let fear hold you back. Give yourself away. It’s a big world, explore and observe. Always, always be grateful and never, never stop believing.