My joke was always this: every morning my grandad, GG (great grandad), did not wake up dead he was pissed off. While I say it was a joke, there was a lot of seriousness to this statement. He was tired and ready. He missed my Grandmother who died nearly two decades before him, and he had lived a good, long life. It was time and yet his body continued to live. Where he had once thrived, he now simply survived. He lived on less food and more sleep. His past anger dissipated and he became a benevolent, if still stern, man.
In a similar situation, nearly two decades after a terminal diagnosis, my father-in-law became to symbolize what my husband (and his son) called “the flickering light”. Like my GG, he too began to have good days and bad days. He too would be a little talkative (he was never a gabber) and still have times when he said nothing at all, even when directly spoken to. He would have a raging infection of some sort with a fever and then just as suddenly it would be gone and he was “back”. One day he would be sitting up reading the paper or watching television and in a matter of hours he would be fading and a bit loopy in his thinking. He too was tired, but he had reasons he wanted to live. But even these reasons became less powerful while the discomfort and exhaustion became more influential.
It was this “flickering” that made saying good-bye a challenge. If either had just simply failed and made a gradual decline with no resurgence, we could have had an idea of what was going on and when death would occur. But neither did. They continued to flicker for years, often to their own chagrin. They were old, sick, tired, and yet at peace with their lives. They saw what they wanted to see and allowed the rest to go unseen; living in denial and on their own terms, they thrived as only they could. Perhaps they were just of a different breed, a different generation. Or, they simply had a constitution that was incredibly strong and hearty. Though they may have been tired and ready to let go, there was something in both that kept them going long after all the professionals had anticipated or expected.
We knew they both would be OK because we were there to take care of them. My GG had my parents who lived upstairs from him and tended to his every need and in the way he wanted. This was on his terms as he was a stern, direct, simple, authoritative man. Plus, as he was in his 90s, no one was going to challenge him. If he wanted to sit and watch car races or sleep or no longer exercise or eat his vegetables, no one was going to force him or challenge his reasoning. He deserved to live as he wanted by that age. He had a difficult life and we were not going to have it be any more so at the end of his life. That was our gift to him.
My father-in-law had my mother-in-law who literally put her life on hold to ensure he had what he needed in the way he wanted it and when he needed it. For two decades. That was her promise to him when she married him and she held to it with grace and strength. He also was a direct and simple man. By the time he entered hospice care, he had out lived the worst prognosis by almost a decade. I am convinced he thrived as he did because of the care she gave him and because he had his two grandsons whom he completely cherished. He loved his wife, his son, and me; but he lived for his grandsons.
In both of these situations, the one who was in the process of dying was cared for. They had shelter, food, care, love, attention, comfort and anything else they needed or wanted. It was those around them who did not have the same attention or support. Yes there were others who stepped in periodically and provided some relief now and then and in limited ways. These breaks were vital respites for them. Yet they still were the primary caregivers who were responsible for the daily needs. And they were the ones watching and waiting with no end in sight – for them and for us.
It is to these caregivers I dedicate this book. It is to my parents who put aside decades of emotions and stalled their own retirement to tend to my GG. It is to my mother-in-law who for two decades graciously loved and cared for my father-in-law and often with little relief. Thank you for your example, your dedication, and your love. You will have as good as you gave. You will continue to be my inspiration and my idols. I appreciate you and the examples you lived and showed others.