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
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
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
He passed away about three days later, on August 11. This
man who was supposed to live another year didn't last a
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
* * *
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 coworker. 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
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 e-mail 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,
"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
Copyright 2006 Thomas Jeffries. All rights reserved.