Dad recovered from the chemotherapy at home that winter, only to learn that it had not killed his cancer. I drove him and Mom to his follow up appointments with the oncologist, who would send him home with stronger and stronger pain medication as the cancer spread.
On one trip home from the doctor, my mother asked for another favor. "Could you get Sis to move out somehow? We want to be alone during this time, to talk without being interrupted."
"I’m not sure how to do that, but I’ll try." God will have to help me!
One day Sis complained to me about how stressful it was living with Mom and Dad. "They’ve suddenly become distant, indifferent—like they’re mad at me for some reason." When she added that our cousin had invited her to move in with them, I seized the opportunity and encouraged her to do it. Before long, she did. Thank you, God.
The day came when Dad’s weakness and pain relegated him to the 1930’s double bed in their room. Several days a week I would spend time at my folks, helping where I could and sitting on the edge of that old bed, conversing with my father—tales from his childhood in Sweden, about the beloved girl he left behind who planned to join him in America, where they’d get married. "But she couldn’t leave her family." Dad put his hand over his heart. "Four years later I met Mommy, and we married the next year." He spoke of his children, my three siblings and me, wondering if he’d been a good father.
And now he worried about my mother’s forgetful behavior, whether she’d have enough money to live on after he was gone.
My soul wept, wishing I could bear his pain and concerns instead.
"Mommy disappears for a long, long time," my father went on, "and I don’t know where she is. She needs someone to look after her when I die."
"I’ll see that she’s looked after, Dad." I immediately understood, having witnessed her absent-minded behavior from time to time. I knew I couldn’t promise him I’d look after her myself, living so far away and having Mike to care for—the extent of which my folks were not fully aware. Dad’s cancer continued to spread—painfully and terminally. At his last appointment, in May, the oncologist sent my father home to ride out this insidious disease with synthetic morphine. I lingered behind as my folks left the medical building, and asked the doctor if the cancer could have spread from the liver to his stomach.
"Yes. Very likely." He grasped my shoulder and we stopped walking. "The morphine will mask his pain, and he’ll sleep most of the time he has left. Don’t hesitate to call me when you have questions."
I drove them home at a snail’s pace on the least bumpy roads I could find. They sat together in the back seat of my little yellow wagon. I peered at them every other minute in the rear view mirror. Dad hugged a pillow we had brought with us. I cringed when a small bump I could not avoid caused him to double over, squeezing the pillow into his stomach.
"I never knew I could hurt so bad." His voice was weak.
"Sorry, Dad." Though the bump couldn’t be avoided, I felt guilty. I hoped he and Mom couldn’t see the tears sneaking down my face.
My following days were mostly spent at my folks’ house, helping with Dad’s daily care. A couple of weeks later, I became suspicious that Mom was withholding his morphine. While I sat on the edge of his bed, he would mumble, frequently, "Oh, I hurt so bad."
"Mom?" I found her sitting in the living room. "Have you been giving Dad his morphine as the doctor told you to?"
"Well, sometimes I skip a dose," she said. "It makes him funny in the head."
I understood, because I’d heard him say awkward things. I’d seen him endorse a check with a shaky signature that ran off the line. I watched him grimace in pain, not wanting to complain.
I stood in front of her so she couldn’t get up and leave the room. "Mom," I began. "Dad is dying. He’s in great pain. It is God’s will, and you must accept it. All you can do now is keep him clean and pain free."
Her face went pale, she gazed into space. I hoped she wasn’t going into shock or having a stroke or something.
I continued, "You have to give Dad his pain medicine as prescribed. Let’s put a paper and pencil on the chiffonier so you can write down the date and time you give him the morphine. We’ll put your alarm clock there, too, and you can set it for the next dose—even if it’s in the middle of the night."
Her eyes blinked, then focused on me. "So, that’s all I can do now … Keep him clean and out of pain …?"
We put the paper, pencil and alarm clock on the chiffonier in their bedroom. Mom became fastidious in her new role as care-giver.
I would read the medicine log each time I came to check on Mom and Dad, almost every day. She was doing a good job. When it became too difficult for Mom or both of us to move or lift Dad to wash him and change the sheets, we ordered a hospital bed.
The delivery man set it up, showed us how it worked, helped us load Dad into it, then left.
Later that day, Dad awoke and realized he was in a hospital bed. "When did this happen?" He whispered to me.
"This morning, Dad." I bent closer, to hear him.
"How much does it cost?"
"Forty-three dollars a day."
"How long do I have to have it?"
"Well…" I had to smile. "That depends on you!" Sick as he was, he surely was thinking about Mom’s income.
"Thank you, honey."
"You’re welcome, Dad."
The ring of the alarm clock startled me. Mom hurried in to drip another dose of morphine under his tongue. She returned the vial, wrote the time, how many drops administered, and reset the alarm for four more hours. "Good job, Mom." I was proud of her.
I left for home, and was greeted by our always joyful Cairn Terrier, Shotgun. Mike drove in a half an hour later, with no signs of low blood sugar. I shared my day, then both agreed that Dad wouldn’t last much longer.
The next morning, I was at my folks’ by seven-thirty. Mom and I stood on each side of the hospital bed and held Dad’s hands, talking softly to him because we believed he could still hear us though he couldn’t speak. We gave him permission to go on ahead, to let go, and told him we loved him.
I left the room so Mom could have some alone time, and found myself in the living room, sitting at the piano. The piano I’d practiced since I was six years old, which backed up to the wall of the room where Daddy lay dying. An old, blue Lutheran Hymnal rested at eye level before me.
"My Hope is Built on Nothing Less" appeared when I opened the hymnal. My fingers automatically struck the keyboard, as they had done on the church organ many years ago. I stopped playing after two verses, my eyes too blurry with tears to read the notes.
I returned to the bedroom where my mother stood, still holding Dad’s hand. I went to the opposite side and held the other. I monitored his breathing—it was very slow. Finally he let out a breath, but never drew one in again. I looked at my watch. It read 12:26. Mom and I looked up at each other and sighed.
"He’s gone, Mom." I put Dad’s hand down on the bed and wrote on the medicine log, "May 29, 1987 … 12:26 PM … Daddy’s last breath."