On August 24, 2017, my dad was diagnosed with stage IV bronchial cancer. I can still hear the ticking of the clock in the emergency department as we sat and waited for the results of the CT scan. My heart sank as the doctor pulled back the curtain that was there to provide patients with a false sense of privacy. The look on his face telling the prologue of the story that was to come. The doctor, with pity in his eyes uttered the words “advanced cancer.”
My dad’s palliative journey was brief, suffering minimal, as far as cancer goes. On November 18, 2017, he passed away peacefully in his home, my mom, the palliative care nurse, and his beloved dog Zoey by his side. His sister and longtime friend slumbered peacefully downstairs. My dad had insisted he wanted to pass away at home, medical institutions were not his cup of tea. Although he was an incredibly polite and compliant patient he would rather not be there “thank you very much.”
On a beautiful fall day, I was at my parent’s home, taking my shift to stay with him. My mom had gone out to get groceries and have a semblance of normalcy in her life. This afforded my dad and I time to just be together. We talked about how he and my mom met. Fifty years prior my dad was hospitalized with an injury while partaking in shenanigans with his military comrades. Fate would bring my mom to be his bedside nurse and six months later they were married on August 16, 1969. While I had heard this story 100 times or more, on this day it had a different ending, one that I had never heard before; perhaps because until now even my dad had not thought of it. “Tannis, your mom and I met while she was my bedside nurse in the hospital. When I leave here, when it is my time to die it will be the same, only your mom and I. It will be the same just as it was 50 years ago.”
Fast forward to November 17, 2017 - my dad is sleeping peacefully in his hospital bed situated in the living room, well medicated to control his pain. The living room is filled with family and friends who have gathered to say goodbye - see him off if you will, a bon voyage party of sorts. My dear friend as she prepares to leave rouses my dad from his sleep and offers to bring my dad homemade chicken soup the next day. Chicken soup: a metaphor for love - tomorrow she would bring love. Dad looked at her and said, “You know Lore, it really isn’t all that bad. I am a lucky man.”
That night the house emptied one guest at a time, soon it would be my turn to go. My heart was aching to stay but the conversation I had had with my dad a few weeks earlier echoed through my mind. His words clear as though he was speaking to them to me in that moment. I could hear him telling me he wanted it to be only he and my mom when he passed. I knew in my heart of hearts it was his time to go; time for me to give him my final gift. He had prepared me for this day. I leaned down, ever so lightly tucking the sheets beneath his shoulders. The shoulders that were once so strong, the muscles that lifted five-year-old me up over his head, the once strong arms that held my legs as I wheelbarrowed down the hall. Muscles that were now ravished by cancer. My dad’s breathing shallow and raspy, his responsiveness minimal, I knew this would be the last time I saw him while we shared time on this earthly journey. As I leaned in to give him a final kiss goodbye, I whispered in his ear as he had for me on countless bedtimes when I was just a little girl “Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul you keep. I will see you again one day, I love you, Dad.” Those would be the final words to my dad. On November 18, 2017, at 3 a.m., my dad took his last breath, as he wished; my mom with him quietly, the two of them together.
Death for all of us is inevitable, there is no escaping it. Losing my dad was hard; even in this work I am not immune to the grief that comes with losing someone we love. His passing, while sad, was peaceful and calm with the room filled with love; being able to make the best of our gift of time. No unspoken words lingered. August 24th to November 18th; a gift of eighty-six days. Eighty-six days to tell stories, recall memories, take care of the practical housekeeping like closing accounts and sharing passwords, and time to say goodbye.
As the sun rose that morning I had returned to my parents’ home. I sat in the living room, watching out the window as a bird flitted his wings looked in at me through the large picture window, time seeming to stand still, my heart aching but full. I knew at that moment; many people do not get this gift of time, and I would cherish it always.
It is my hope that by talking about my story, my lantern will light the way for others to reframe a palliative diagnosis. While it is often heart wrenching, it affords us a gift of time not afforded to many.