"God saw you were getting tired, and a cure was not to be, so he put his arms around you, and whispered "Come to Me". With tearful eyes we watched you, and saw you pass away. Although we loved you dearly, we could not make you stay. A golden heart stopped beating, hard working hands, at rest. God broke our hearts to prove to us, He only takes the best."
This is the poem we selected for the back of my father's memorial cards for his funeral. It was so fitting, perfectly describing him, someone with a heart of gold, full of joy, and always hard working and hard playing. The picture above is so symbolic of who my dad was as well. Full of life and vigor before he got sick, having fun, laughing. One of the things my father requested was that we remember him, and make sure his grand kids do too. So, the next couple of blog entries are for just that-remembering him.
In this post, I want to tell the story of his death. To many it may not seem a way to remember the good, the life, the spirit that was my father, but after reading the story of his death, you will know so much about my father, just by the way he spent his last weeks. I will post some of the things he told us before he died in my next post, and some of the lessons he passed on to all of us in another post.
My father was admitted to the hospital on October 12th, for having blood in his dialysis fluid. This was after a year that included open heart surgery and valve replacements, surgical removal of cysts in his neck and groin, a bypass in his leg, and ultimately amputation of one leg. His health had deteriorated rapidly the past summer, and this hospital trip was after three days of not being able to get out of bed, and months of not eating. In hind sight, I think we knew he was not going to come home, and by some of his actions and comments, I think he did too. The doctors determined that he had a severe infection in his abdomen, (peritonitis), and the infection was in his spleen, his blood, and his heart valves. Even if he could beat the infection, the damage to his spleen and heart valves was so severe, that the doctors would not operate because his chances of survival were slim. For a couple days after the diagnosis and prognosis had been given, he was in and out of lucidity, so my mother was faced with the awful task of deciding what treatments to stop and when, and when to put him on comfort care. Luckily by that Saturday, he was awake, and with it enough to see some family members and friends who had gathered at the hospital. (We had spent the previous days contacting friends and family to let them know my father wasn't coming home from this one.) He also got to see his oldest two grandchildren that day, JB, my son, and my niece, Kailee. He was laughing, joking, being a wise ass- just like usual. Everyone went home, and I stayed the night. My brother, sister, and aunt and I had been taking turns. I thought he was sleeping, and I leaned my arms and head down on the bed rail. He placed his hand on my head, and touched my face. I looked at him, grabbed his hand, kissed it, and said I love you. He said I love you too, and asked if my Aunt Cathy, his sister and law, had made it in from Virginia yet. I said no, she will be here tomorrow sometime. He then told me he was done. He was going to wait until she got here, and stop dialysis treatments. I held his hand as tight as I could, and said okay. I am not leaving your side. I'll be right here. He protested slightly, and said he didn't want me to lose my job. I let him know my work was being so great throughout all of this, and gave me all the time I needed. I held his hand until he faded back into sleep. I have to admit, I was somewhat relieved that HE decided it was time. It spared my mother from making an awful decision.
The next day, he spent the morning talking with us, laughing, fading in and out of sleep. We talked about good times, funny memories. He was surrounded by his family, and his best friend. My mother, brother, sister and I were right there by his side. When my aunt Cathy arrived, he broke down into tears, and said he couldn't do it anymore, to which my aunt, always a rock in our family, said with such bravery and composure, "Then don't. You don't have too" That began the process of my father choosing his path on his journey through death. He said some very important things to all of us, and requested some very important things of all of us. (I will talk about that later) That night, he stopped all dialysis treatments, as well as any extra measures aside from comfort and his medication to sustain his blood pressure. My brother and sister spent that night with him.
The next two days were filled with much of the same- in and out of sleep. His nurses were fantastic, and that is for lack of a better word. When he was awake, he told us all how he loved us so much. He would make wise cracks, flirt with my mother a little. Then on Tuesday evening, the 20th, he decided to stop the blood pressure medication, be taken off all the monitors, and be moved into a palliative care room. I had gone home to get some rest, and came back up around 8. Within an hour, everyone else had gone home to rest. My dad was agitated, and not making alot of sense at this point, but he was not in pain. Throughout the night he remained in an agitated state. We increased his pain meds, gave him frequent breathing treatments. and anxiety medication. He went through alot of statements, and conversations. Ones that didn't make sense to me. but it was him reliving situations and activities that were comfortable and familiar to him. After not recognizing me for most of the night, around 2:30, i was holding his hand. He looked right at me, and I at him, and I said Dad I love you. He said I love you too. At around 3:15, he changed. He wasn't fighting for breath, and his eyes were distant. I called the nurses into the room, and helped them clean him up a bit. They advised me to call my family so I did. After getting off the phone with my brother, the nurse said you should come back in the room now. I went in, and knew he was dying, right at that very moment. I grabbed his hand, kissed his forehead, and said "I love you daddy, you don't have to fight anymore". As I sat there, beside his bed, I watched his breathing slow, and then actually saw the pulse in his neck stop beating. Just like that, he was gone. No sounds. No gasps. No last breath. Just silence. Just me and my father, alone in silence. It brought me great comfort to be there, and hold his hand as he entered into eternity. And it was fitting. Many of you know my father and I had a strained relationship for a long time, so this was like coming full circle. I was honored, and felt it the utmost act of respect, to be there as he left us. My family arrived shortly after, and we all said our goodbyes.
There are so many amazing, blessed, Divine moments in all of this. My father chose, after fighting a long, courageous battle, to enter quietly into the next life. He made his peace with all of us, and us with him. He knew beyond certainty how we loved him, and we knew how he loved us. Not only was it felt, but it was spoken. SO many families never get the opportunity to say goodbye the way we did. He controlled the when and how. That was important to him. He didn't die alone. He spent his final days with those who loved him the most, loving, laughing. He even prayed with me. (He prayed, I fell apart). He awoke with enough sound mind to make decisions we would have been devastated to make. He made requests, and clear directives as to what he wanted to happen. The whole thing was amazing. Profoundly sad, yet profoundly amazing. He was such a big part of our family. Truly the rock, the center. Definitely the strongest man I have ever known, and as if to show us all just how strong he actually was, and how much fight he actually had, we found out a day before he died, that the infection was gone.
The next few days were full of planning, and remembering. I have never felt so close to my family as I did in those days. With respect, honor, love, alot of laughs, and great admiration, his services brought together family and friends. I saw my mother as such a stoic, yet broken woman, holding it together for everyone else. My little brother and sister seemed to be adults all at once in my eyes. (Even though they had been adults for many years at this point.) As I gave his eulogy, I looked out and saw my family. I saw everything my father hoped and dreamed, sitting in front of me in my children and nieces. I saw everything that was important to him, in all the people that were there. I saw literally his whole life, laid out before me, and somehow, even though a cure was not to be, he was healed. He was whole. In every single person who knew and loved my father, in the family that was his everything, and in his grand kids, who he adored, he will live on.
RIP James E. Howe
May 18, 1960 to October 20, 2010