“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” — I Thessalonians 4:13
Yesterday I had the opportunity and the blessing to be a part of one of our memorial services for VITAS. It gave everyone, including the staff, the opportunity to talk about their losses and about some of the fond memories they had about their father, brother, or husband or wife. And for the VITAS staff, especially those who have been there forever, it was the opportunity they had to be able to share what they were going through losing their patients. Everybody talked about the good and bad memories. One family member shared that her mom was “sassy” and had an “attitude” and when she said “yes” it was “yes” and when she said “no” it was “no”.
Our guest speaker at the service was a woman who had been a chaplain and head of the Bereavement Dept before I was working there. She had lost here husband just last year to pancreatic cancer and he happened to be on our team so I was able to get to know her a little while he was on the program. Her message was the first one she gave as a chaplain and as a bereaved widow. It was open and honest about the ups and downs of her loss. As a chaplain, she had the head knowledge and training to deal with death and dying throughout all those years she worked there. But as a person, she was having to face the same emotions her patients and their families had faced through their illness and the bereavement and loss after they died. Know she was having to practice what she preached, so to speak. And she was very open her journey. It was refreshing to hear her say that her husband was still there but off to the side where she could get to him if she needed to talk to him. One story she shared was about the taxes. He had always done the taxes. And she had begged him to teach her how to do them so that when he was gone, she could do them without worrying. This year dreading having to do them, she went to the file, opened it up and there was a piece of cardboard box with a step-by-step process of how to do them! How wonderful!
We all shared about our losses including myself. I talked about how blessed I had been that VITAS had been there for my father in his last moments when he passed away. He was in the Inpatient Unit and died with dignity and without suffering. When I first saw him, he was trying to get up out of bed and it seemed like he was saying “I love you” but it was to hard to understand because at this time all he could do was grumble and moan. It was impossible to understand him. It broke my heart to see him like that. He had always been a strong and vibrant man with a very clear mind. But he was lying in this bed unable to tell us what was bothering him. All he could do was moan. This is the horrible end of HD. It robs that person of any dignity at all. The person still has a mind but they can’t communicate. Alzheimer’s patients lose their memories of their loved ones and don’t remember who their are. HD patients know how their loved on is but after a while they can’t communicate. They also have a hard time chewing and swallowing their food. And usually they die from lung infection or pneumonia because water keeps getting into their lungs. In fact, my father had seen this in his family and he insisted on not putting any feeding tube at all or any other kind of artificial tubing because he did not want to prolong his suffering, and I thank him for that because that was one decision we didn’t have to make.
He died peacefully on May 13th, 2001 at about 5 am. I remember the fact that it was Mother’s day. Not a very good Mother’s day for my mother at all. I had the privilege to officiate his memorial service where we remembered all the good this about him. I insisted that we put up pictures of his youth. Since he had been an architect we put drawings and pictures of projects he had designed. He was a big jazz fan and could tell us which song from which album was playing in the first few seconds of the song. He was a big fan of the movies as well and could tell you if a movie had won a Oscar and how many and who played in it. And of course he loved his family and was very proud of everyone of us. He was at my graduation from college when I got my Bachellor’s degree but was not able to make to my graduation for my Master’s degree because his health was already declining where he could not be present. But every time I would see him he would introduce me as “his son the pastor.”
Even though it was a difficult journey from the moment he had been diagnosed to the final moments of his death, I would not change one moment. At first I was very angry at God for allowing this to happen to one of the purest souls in the universe. Eventually I accepted the fact that he had HD and even thanked God for it because it would allow us to spend quality time and make some powerful memories together in the years to come. We knew he was declining but we treated him with respect and dignity as if he were still a part of our family. If he had died suddenly we would not have been able to build those memories together and we might have had some regrets about something we did or did not do. This way we intentionally focused on the relationship and we had plenty of time to say, “I love you” and make things right in the relationship that needed to be made right. One of the most remarkable demonstration of that was when, even though my parents had been separated for years, my mother felt it was her calling as a Christian and wife to take care of him until his death! And she did that with all the love a person could give to another human being. She selflessly gave of herself when she could have remarried and lived with someone else and enjoy the last years of her retirement traveling around the world like she deserved. But instead she sacrificed those eight long years by his side and for that we will always respect her and love her.
Now I have the opportunity to be blessed as well. I will be able to spend quality time building those wonderful memories with my family and friends as well. One of the sayings that has special meaning for me know is, “Don’t leave for tomorrow what you can do today.” The quality time I can spend with my loved ones is now. This is a principle we should all put to practice. Don’t wait for the doctor to show up with that horrible news that you have cancer or whatever it may be before you make things right with God and your family, do it now so that if moment does come you already have a relationship with your God and are creating wonderful memories with your loved ones.
I thank God for the time I had to spend with my father and the memories we were able to build after he was diagnosed with HD. And since I have the hope of Christ, I don’t grieve like those don’t because I know I will see him again and we will continue to build new memories in a New Earth without the Curse of pain and suffering, and death and dying!
Thank You Father for giving me the gift of my earthly father who always loved me and encouraged me and who always taught me never to give up. Thank You for allowing this illness to come our way so that we could build some wonderful memories together and make amends in our relationship. I especially want to thank you for touching his heart and for him being open to listen to the gospel. Thank You for giving me this hope and knowing I will see him again in a new body on a New Earth, without pain or suffering; without death and dying and to build new memories with him forevermore. In Your name, Amen.