Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Spiritual Autobiography: On the Road

And here we arrive at a major life-changing moment: bearing witness to the end of my father's life. Up until now, I haven't said much about him. So here's a quick glimpse at who my dad was: a quiet, thoughtful, fair man, born before the Great Depression in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He was a friend to most furry creatures... except skunks, of course. He served in the Navy during World War II, and taught young men how to fly. He earned a law degree, and was appointed the judge of Exeter District Court... where he heard cases that ranged from speeding tickets to dealing drugs. He also had a probate law practice, where he would accept salmon caught on a fishing trip to Alaska instead of money from some of his clients. This was how they could afford legal services, and my father never pushed them for anything more.

My dad had had a stroke earlier this decade, and then developed a Parkinson's-related illness that left his right side paralyzed and the muscles atrophied. After yet-another time of my mom not being able to move him from the bed to his wheelchair, the doctors advised it would be safer and better for my mom to have my dad enter an assisted living facility. Such care isn't cheap; so my parents moved temporarily here to Florida. And that's where we pick up the story:

My dad had been admitted to the hospital with pneumonia, and given his trouble swallowing due to his illness, the surgeon advised it was time to insert a feeding tube. My father was to no longer receive anything by mouth. Clearly, that, for dad, was the last straw. He was discharged from the hospital, and when I went to see him at his facility, he was angry and in pain. He kept trying to say something to me, but I couldn't understand him. At some point, with tears streaming down my cheeks, I looked up at the ceiling and begged God to help me. And something told me to put my ear to his mouth and ask him to breathe out his words, one by one.

"I. Want. Outta. Here!"

It was the clearest my dad's voice had been in weeks. To make sure, I asked him the follow up question:

"You said you want outta here. Is that 'outta here' as in Alterra? Or 'outta here' as in the whole shebang?"

"Whole. She. BANG!"

There was a brief silence that passed between us, and then I assured him that if he felt it was time, I wasn't going to tell him no. And, probably the most important thing for him to hear, was that I, my mom and my brothers, were all going to be OK.

The night before he died, I made arrangements with my brother, Tom, to talk over the phone to my dad. By this point, dad wasn't speaking at all anymore, and didn't open his eyes. But as I held the phone to his ear, I saw my father's expression changing as my brother wept on the other end of the phone. The spirit still present in my father was hearing and taking in this good-bye. I stayed with my dad squeezing his hand. He’d squeeze mine back, and we just kept up this silent communication for awhile. After a while, I had the sense that it was time for me to leave for the night, and I had this saying come to me, “No fear and no regrets.” I didn’t know if this was something he was communicating to me through our hands or if it was God or what, but as I said Good night to him, I whispered into his ear, “No fear and no regrets.”

When my dad died, I had to return to the Church for his funeral. Actually, two. We did one in NH, and then at the insistence of folks down here, we held a second funeral at St. John’s. I met with the associate rector, Mtr. Lee Shafer, to make the plans. We weren't sure if his funeral should be in the main sanctuary or in the chapel. So, she showed me both. And given that the chapel had a Corpus Christi looming over the altar, and most of my friends coming to this funeral were hostile to Christianity, we decided the more staid sanctuary would be best. As I stood with her near the pulpit, I told her about witnessing the execution, and my feeling that I could never be forgiven.

She smiled. "All you have to do is ask."

What? That's it?!

No, it's not! The exciting conclusion tomorrow. Stay tuned!


frdougal said...

This is a slightly different scenario than my dad's passing. He had suffered a major coronsary at 45, which meant he couln't work and then a stroke 9 years before his death, from which he made an impressive but partial recovery. He had lived with the knowledge for 20 years that he had an untreatable anyeurism on his aorta which could rupture at any time. He was fairly fit and well for most of that time and had gone on holiday to the Canary islands. 3 days into the holiday, he collapsed in the bathroom and was admitted to hospital at 6pm. He died at 8am the next morning. It was a shock rather than a surprise. But he died without prolonged suffering or debilatating illness. Trouble was I didn't how much he'd meant to me and didn't do any serious grieving for 18 months. And booze was my pain killer of choice. Hence my curent situation.

Anonymous said...

I knew this story very well, and Fr. Dougal, thanks for sharing yours. I don't know you but feel that I am learning that you are a good and deserving priest and am glad you write to Susan on her blog.

Stay in touch.


Tracy said...

Great post - got me crying and then laughing with your stay-tuned-for-more ending.

It's so wonderful that you were able to communicate with your dad and carry out his wishes. He sounds like he had an incredible life.

SCG said...

Thanks for sharing, frdougal. I imagine that had to be very difficult to have your father die that suddenly... and while he was out of the country. There's something to be said for that opportunity to say, "Good-bye", isn't there?
And I can understand that need to "self-medicate" through alcohol. I never got addicted, but journalism was a whole lot easier with a beer or scotch at night. Advil was pretty useful during the day, too.

SCG said...

Peggins: you lived those years as well, and even closer to your own heart, I know.

Tracy: I think my dad's last nine days on this planet were the most important piece in this journey. As I said: stay tuned!