September 14, 2011

Remembering Dennis …

It’s been a year since my father, Dennis Sweat, died of cancer – 365 days of my continuing to carry on with my life as he left his behind. He was 65 year old. My life changed in ways big and small the day I received the call from his social worker that he had Small Cell Stage IV Lung Cancer with less than six months to live and has not ever gone DSC_3280back to the “normal” that I once thought “normal” was. Yes, my father was a lifelong smoker – he never believed that cigarettes would kill him, they did. If you are a smoker … please stop.

Without question I could never have made it through the final month of my father’s journey without the gentle but strong arms of the hospice workers around me. Sometimes a disarmingly simple question like, “Have you eaten today, Felicia?” could send me into a gale of silent tears, while helping me to remember to do the most basic of things I’d forgotten for hours upon hours. My strategy to get through this process was simple: use my intellect, strategy and reason to step through it and keep my head about me. What a joke. Had I known the enormity and tremendous range of emotions I would feel day-to-day, hour-to-hour, even minute-to-minute I might never have stepped one foot on the path with my father but I didn’t, and I did, and my life is better for the experience.

Watching someone you love die – right in front of your eyes is almost unspeakable, being present as they exhale their final breath is profound. In our Western society, we gather around to celebrate life’s entry but cannot bear to acknowledge death. The sad truth of the matter is that many of us die alone. The hospice team asked me many times if I believed my father would want me to be there when he died and I never hesitated in my conviction that he absolutely, positively would. My father ceased to speak some seven weeks before he died and while we had not talked about this specifically, I vividly remember a conversation we’d had the year before he died where he’d explained to me that he was never a man who ever wanted to sleep in his bed alone. No, my father was not a faithful man ~ but he was an honest one. A man who didn’t ever want to sleep in his bed alone definitely did not want to die alone. In a quiet room in the middle of the morning, Dennis stopped struggling and let go with me by his side holding his hand and stroking his forehead as Peggy, the Hospice Nurse stood at the foot of his bed monitoring his vital signs. My family said a tearful and love-filled goodbye the weekend before he died … we knew it was close.  

I had to consider decisions made easier by the fact that my father had an Advance Medical Directive, but difficult nonetheless because having the directive does not mean that everybody reads it. As his Guardian of Person, it fell to me to call the meeting with his physicians and point out that if my father could no longer chew and swallow food/liquids on his own – we’d reached a turning point because his directive stated with clarity that he did not wish to be kept alive through means of artificial feeding or hydration. I asked the doctors to remove the IV tubes delivering food and hydration to enforce my father’s wishes. While I had absolute clarity that this was what my father wanted (it was written in black and white) versus my interpretation of what he would want -explaining this to my aunts and uncles, sisters, nieces, daughter,and mother was heart-wrenching. There is no way to ‘spin’ the fact that once you withdraw the tube providing food and water to a person who cannot eat or drink on his/her own – it is no longer a question of if they will die but when. While nobody was angry at me, I know that some in my family may not have enforced the Directive, which is exactly why my father asked that I be his Guardian when he was still able to speak. He knew that I would do what was in his best interest and honor his wishes above my own feelings – hard as it was to do, and it was excruciatingly hard.

As I think back on this journey some lessons shine brightly:
  • The power of forgiveness is even more powerful than the gift of love.
  • There is no substitute for the comfort of hearing the voices and feeling the touch of the people you love – no matter how far away the doctors believe you might be or how far you are on your journey ‘home’.
  • Tears do not make you weak, they keep you strong and are a necessary release. Letting tears flow won’t kill you – keeping them inside just might.
  • Love is all there is.
I have a deep respect and love for the professionals who cared for my father and for my family during my father’s time at the hospital. He received hospice care in the hospital because his health was too precarious to be moved. The compassionate care the doctors, nurses, social workers and others showed my father in every touch, administration of pain medication, gentle hand on my shoulder, and hug left me speechless and in tears day after day. If there are angels on this planet, surely they dance among the people who do hospice work and those working with the terminally ill in a hospital setting.

For some time after my father’s death I felt as if I’d been broken, like some part of me was irrevocably altered – it was, but I forgot that we heal and what is broken often comes back stronger. I am. Many people have asked me whether or not I would do it again, knowing all that I know now. My answer is a resounding, unwavering, quiet but steady … YES.

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