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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

53 Minutes: My Father's Final Lesson

This is my best attempt at recalling the last 53 minutes of my father's life. No embellishments; just what my sister and I were privileged to witness.
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Per this prior post, it was obvious that “something” had changed between 4 and 5 pm on Saturday, November 10th. My dad was no longer resting comfortably. He was struggling. After urging him to hang in there for the past 5 hours, I decided it was time to release him from what we thought he wanted and let him choose his own course.
I cannot recall exactly what I said to him at 5:00, but it went something like this:
"Dad, it’s Don. Diana and I are here. You can let go now. Your work is done here. We’ll be fine." 
I’m sure there was more, but I’m also certain those words covered 99% of the message I wanted him to hear. We settled back into our chairs and continued the vigil. It stayed pretty much the same for the next 40 minutes or so. Six or seven deep breaths…followed by nothing for up to a minute or longer. Then another few deep breaths…then repeat. We did notice the time between each cycle was getting a little longer.

At about 5:45 p.m., as if someone had flipped a switch, my father’s breathing suddenly became shallower and almost nonstop. Not too rapid, but the abrupt change caught our immediate attention. When I looked over at the RN from Hospice of the Sacred Heart, she simply nodded her head. I lifted the end of my father’s bed and angled it away from the wall so I could move up to his right side. My sister was on his left. I believe each of us held one of his hands.
We had been with my Dad for the last three days. He had not said a word. He had not opened his eyes. He was lying in bed, mouth open, breathing irregularly while we watched and prayed for another reprieve that never came. When it became obvious that my father was rapidly declining, I moved closer to him and said;

“Dad, how about one last smile?”
As if on cue, my father closed his mouth and gave his best attempt at a Crazy Guggenheim ( remember him ? ) smile that he could. It was definitely a smile. And then, he turned his head toward me and, for the first time in 72+ hours, opened his right eye and looked directly at me.

Less than a minute later, he was gone.
I relive that moment daily. Wherever he was, my father summoned the will to gaze upon the world he was leaving and for whatever reason, he chose to look at me. A few days later, I was kidding that my Dad was giving me “the look” one last time, to which my sister replied "What I saw was unconditional love." 
I’ll go with that interpretation.  
In my life, I learned many things from my father that will remain with me until it’s my turn to say good-bye. But in the last few seconds of his life, he completed his task as a teacher with what I believe to be his best two lessons:  the hearing does go last and, far more importantly, he showed us how to die with dignity, with courage, with grace...and at the very end, with a display of unconditional love.
As difficult as it was at the time, we were fortunate to be there.
A good and respected friend that attended my father’s funeral asked me for copy of my eulogy when I was ready. As most know, 2013 has been a roller-coaster ride for me personally. I believe the worst is behind me...and I’m ready. My next post will be the final piece of this cathartic journey of the mind and soul that needed to happen.
It took a little longer than anticipated but, perhaps, this is the way it’s been planned predestined all along.   

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