When to Say Goodbye

Oct 12, 2006 |Thomas Jeffries
When to Say Goodbye

It's far too risky to wait until your loved one is on their deathbed.

The doctor didn't mince words. He told my father what no man wants to hear — that there weren't any treatments left, that his lungs were too tired, that his heart was too weary, that no amount of prescriptions or procedures could undo the effects of more than four decades worth of smoking and drinking. My father's lifestyle, his very way of life, had left him frail and out of breath, dependent on an oxygen canister and the assistance of others just to take a shower or fix a meal. First Dr. Dunn said what we already knew: that my father was suffering from emphysema and congestive heart failure. Then he said something we weren't expecting.

Dad had only a year to live, maybe less.

Despite what I knew, what I'd seen, the news still caught me off guard. After all, I had just flown out to see my father, and while he spent much of our time together sitting or napping or lying down, he was still able to shuffle to the table for meals or off to the bathroom when needed. OK, so his health wasn't exactly good, but he didn't seem that much worse than during prior visits.

Yet what looked to me like business as usual was actually Dad's last stand. Turns out it took every bit of strength he had to take those 10 or 20 steps. Turns out that merely sitting up for an hour to play a board game or visit with a neighbor left him frustrated and spent. Turns out that by the time my father gave up cigarettes for good, it was already at least 10 years too late. A single flight of stairs became Mt. Everest. Dad finally gave up and began sleeping on the living room sofa.

We heard the prognosis in the middle of July. A few days later, my mom, two brothers and I all arranged a conference call with Dr. Dunn. We'd prepared a list of questions, and we talked for at least an hour. We asked about options, alternatives and timelines. We wanted to hear for ourselves how much time Dad really had left. Dr. Dunn confirmed the news: One year. At best.

My older brother's family made plans to visit from North Carolina, and my wife and I decided to book a flight, too. Our kids are young, and we wanted to make sure they could spend some time with Grandpa while he still had the strength to enjoy their company.

But we were already too late. Our plane landed in Michigan the first week in August — barely a month after I'd last seen my father — and the change was already evident. He no longer shuffled around; save for the occasional (assisted) trip to the bathroom, he never moved from the living room sofa. He ate there, slept there, and — when he no longer had the fortitude to walk — he endured the indignity of leaning against one of his sons while he relieved himself there.

My father's rapid decline was astounding. A couple days after we arrived, the family arranged for the delivery of a reclining hospital bed. Dad seemed to deteriorate by the hour. He slept more than ever, and he was barely eating. There was no "will to live." My father simply stopped fighting, and our family visit turned deathwatch.

My older brother and I had to return to work, but we couldn't bear to leave my mother alone. There was no way Mom could care for my father on her own, so my wife offered to stay behind while I flew home with the kids. I said goodbye; told Dad that I loved him. He could hardly respond, but I could tell that he heard me. I was pretty sure it was the last time I would ever see him.

He passed away about three days later, on Aug. 11. This man who was supposed to live another year didn't last a month.

In some ways we were fortunate: We knew the end was coming, and even though it came far too quickly, I was still able to look in my father's eyes, to say things unsaid, to say goodbye.

* * *

I've met too many people whose loved ones are ailing, yet who insist on trying to time that final visit so they can be there "at the end." The End, however, is not so easily discerned. The End is no respecter of persons or schedules. The End arrives when it wants to, without warning, without mercy. The End, many times, comes in a hospital room filled with machines and apparatus designed simply to prolong the moment before The End arrives. Unlike in the movies, the dying don't always wake for one last lucid moment. Often they simply breathe their last and depart without a word.

I thought of this a few months after my dad's death, when I ran into the wife of a former co-worker. Her father had also been given less than a year to live. He, too, lived several states away, and she had been trying to decide when to make the trip.

"Don't wait," I said. "Go see him while he's still alert. You'll never regret visiting him now, but you will probably regret it if you wait too long. And the longer you wait, the better the odds that he'll slip into a coma — or worse, that you won't make it there in time."

I told her about my father, and how thankful I was that I hadn't waited. She nodded and thanked me.

Thank goodness, I thought. Thank goodness I had the opportunity to say everything I wanted to my father. Thank goodness I was able to hug him while he could still lift his arms. Sure, I wasn't there when he died, but I was there when it mattered.

Glen, however, was not so fortunate.

His parents lived on the other side of the country, and he had been out of contact with them when he got an email from his youngest brother. The message showed up on Tuesday, and it said their mother was in the hospital. Now, Glen's mother had been in and out of the hospital several times, but with mostly minor issues. This time was different. This time her liver and kidneys were failing.

"When I got the news that my mom was so sick," Glen said, "I made plans to catch a plane."

Glen booked a flight from Colorado to Florida, with a layover in Ohio. He left Thursday morning.

"I was in the 'C' concourse of the Cincinnati airport when my wife called to tell me my mother was gone. I realized the race was over — for my mom, metaphorically, and for me, literally.

"What do you do with that information when you're completely alone in a crowded airport? Do they have a grieving room where someone can hold you and comfort you through this shocking news? No. What do you do? I went and got a burrito, sat and ate it and thought about not having seen or talked to my mother for months. She was gone."

As it turns out, Glen was actually the first sibling to arrive, and he was able to spend time with his father.

"My very stoic father was now very honest and free with his emotions," Glen recalled. "It was a gift."

As I've thought about Glen's story, I've thought about the uncle who once let me stay with him so I could afford to take the internship of a lifetime in Washington, D.C., and how he dropped dead without warning a few years ago after a game of pick-up basketball. Like Glen, and like so many others, my cousins never got the chance to say goodbye.

* * *

Tomorrow is never guaranteed. So while you have the opportunity, why not tell your loved ones now the things you'd say to them on their deathbed? You don't have to be morbid about it, you just have to be sincere. That way, when you finally get the news no one wants to hear, you won't think of all the things you wish you would have said. After all, the sadness will eventually fade, but regret can last a lifetime.

The summer after Dad died, my wife's father was driving home to Michigan when his semi came over a hill and collided with a tractor trailer that was stopped on the highway. The investigators assured the family that he was killed instantly, but that didn't make my wife feel a whole lot better. After all, her father was only 60 and only weeks away from early retirement.

The timing didn't make sense. None of it made sense.

Perhaps the only thing that eased my wife's mind was that her relationship with her father was as vibrant as ever. Despite the hundreds of miles that separated them, they enjoyed a special bond that grew stronger each year. Sure, the pain when he died was unimaginable, but there were no "if onlys" or "might have beens." In fact, they had prayed together only a week or two before he died, and her memory of that last conversation has never faded. He knew how much his daughter loved him, and she knew it, too.

They didn't realize it at the time, but they had already said goodbye.

Copyright 2006 Thomas Jeffries. All rights reserved.

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