But the flickering in the life of GG was quite different than that in my father-in-law. Derl was well until at age 66 diagnosed with prostate cancer. Surgery revealed the cancer had broken out of his prostate. Because the cancer was in his body, we were told that he had, at best, two to five years and certainly not more than ten. He took the treatments we knew would render him unable to walk eventually, but that was so far down the road and was worth the calculated risk. He went from walking, to using a walker, a scooter, a wheelchair and finally he was unable to move on his own and simply went from his recliner to his bed and nowhere else any more.
This process took place over two decades. Well past the time frame we were provided, he continued on and on and on. It was made all the more difficult for him and my mother-in-law and husband to watch because he had been a mailman and walked his route for 26 years. Now, he could not get out of a chair on his own.
When it was finally determined that there was nothing more that could be done and he had fought a good fight and it was time to stop tormenting him with hospital visits and needles, he was moved into hospice care. At this point, we were told he had weeks to months. Of course, given his history, we knew already that he would likely be the longest living hospice patient.
While we were hoping for this longevity and more time with him, his continued health challenges were wearing on my mother-in-law the most. For her, too, there was no end. But after almost sixty years of marriage and total devotion, she was simply doing what she had promised to do. And she did it with quiet grace and compassion.
As the first weeks and months passed, he did begin to come and go differently. Knowing that he no longer needed extraordinary care allowed us to give him what he wanted to eat, when he wanted it, and it provided us with a bit more of a time frame in which to be certain to visit with him as he wanted. Derl never did like a lot of noise or activity and simply enjoyed watching sports and old Westerns on television. Or, he would read the local community and state newspapers for hours on end. (And none of us could ever figure out how he unfolded those papers in the way he did!)
At first there was no real difference in his demeanor, color, life, or light. Derl had good days and bad days, but not unlike most of us every day of our own lives. And in the previous years, this had been his pattern – though he was increasingly less independent and eventually nearly immobile, he had times when he his spirits were more engaging balanced with time when he would not say anything. He had already endured bouts of fevers and infections that would be followed by a sudden state of wellbeing. We were accustomed to this up and down, in and out, good and bad health, attitude, and prognosis.
There were, however, little things that we all began to notice about him and realized they were reflective of a real and true decline in his health. Such a hearty soul, Derl was also accustomed to a bout of something, he would be admitted to the hospital and after a tune-up, he would be good to go again. The periods of these upticks became shorter and they were more frequently occurring. He also did not bounce back as completely as he had the previous time. His progression was slow, steady, and ever so faintly downward.
What really struck us all is that he, like Fred, was never a conversationalist and certainly never offered reciprocal feedback to what others shared with him. Not once before this time did he ever thank any one for any thing. It’s not that he did not care or that he was not appreciative, he just had never learned these social skills. But, he began to say “thank you”. And quite often. He told people thank you for visiting, for cooking meals, for being there and caring for him. We believe this is his way of finally beginning the process of saying good-bye.
For two men from about the same generation but who led completely different lives and did not communicate, to begin expressing their appreciation for little things was fascinating. We never expected to hear such words and were grateful for them. The relationships began to change and there was more intimacy. But this too would come and go. There were glimmers of the people they once were sprinkled among the times when they were more in tune with their daily experiences. It was a flickering of the light of life – off and on, coming and going, dim and bright – a process.