It’s about a quarter to midnight, but I’m not sleepy. I’m sitting by my Papa Eric Gustafson’s bedside at the Great River Hospice House. He’s nearly ninety-four years old, so it seems silly to say “he’s terminal.” I mean, really; he’s ninety-four.
This is my second experience with Hospice care in just over two months. In late October, Papa’s wife of 68 years, my Grandma Betty Gustafson, went to be with Jesus after a short battle with lymphoma. She was “with it” until nearly the end, surrounded by her family and the music she loved and she barely felt any pain.
Not so with Papa.
We’ve been “losing him” for several years to progressive dementia, although until recently he was physically healthy (for someone in his 90s!) The moments he’s understood who I am and how I’m related to him have been few and far between, but he knows my face and my voice are familiar and I think my presence gives him comfort.
A few short evenings ago, my cousin was here and we helped Papa eat a meal of pancakes and coffee, which he enjoyed. We received the usual blessing, “May the Lord bless you and keep you, make his face shine at you… I forget the rest” without knowing that Papa had just had his last cup of coffee; or that his last sparkling word would be, “Coffee?” In that tone that could have just as easily said, “Manna?” or “A Million Dollars?”
This, as a last word, may not be monumental for your average American, but for our Papa Eric, still a citizen of his native Sweden, coffee was more a part of his life than that the combined residents of Seattle could even dream. He has since tried to speak, but his throat is dry, words don’t work. The hand that helped bring those syrupy bites to his mouth is too weak to even make the trip from his side to his chest.
Papa’s condition has progressively worsened; instead of black coffee, morphine is now an ever-half-hourly requirement, as well as some other periodic pain med which I can’t remember its name. He tries to communicate with his eyebrows and his smile muscles-- the words don’t work and the smile never quite appears. His eyes have dimmed and only one seems to really open, and it a sliver. But I wonder…
They say that some of our senses, especially hearing, sharpen near the end; and the skin can become so sensitive that all but the lightest of touches is excruciating. I wonder if God has given Papa the gift of knowing who I am again for these few hours, to get the comfort which comes from the company of a much-loved family member. I hope so, but I’ll never know till heaven. He can’t tell me now. But he squeezes my hand, he uses his eyebrows… he opens that one eye just a slit when I tell him I love him.
I spent the night with him. Just he and I and the morphine drip. I told him about the two books I’ve written; I’d never mentioned them before… and for good reason. By time I started writing in earnest, Papa rarely knew who I was; but all of a sudden, it seemed as if he did. That could have been God’s gift to him… or maybe God’s gift from me. or both. Either way, God is good. When I told Papa my dream of seeing my books on a bookstore shelf someday, the look that crossed his face in that moment will stay in my mind forever. With only his eyebrows and his chin, he gave me affirmation; it was almost as if he was saying, “And won’t that be something!”
It is not easy to see him in pain… and it’s getting worse.
I haven’t written a lot of personal stuff in this blog before today; it’s a safety issue. Not that I’m all that worried about cyber-stalkers (let’s face it: this blog doesn’t get that many hits!) But so few people know me well enough to “roll with it” that I just hesitate before vomiting my personal life out into the world because life stuff gets messy and ugly and painful; because I can’t cut and paste my personal pain in succinct little edits or flowing literary prose. Case in point: the former sentence: a complete run-on; an English teacher’s nightmare. But that’s life; it’s either so messy that it’s breaking all the rules, and quite possibly ripping your heart out, or so boring that nobody even cares.
Right now, it’s breaking all the rules of order. It’s a run-on sentence with too many ellipses. (The dot, dot, dot which leaves a thought hanging); at this moment, as death approaches a loving fixture in my life, my mind is littered with poor punctuation, randomness, and inconsistent time-jumping through a fog of memory vs. “the now.”
So, unlike other posts, which I’ve been careful to edit and spell-check and de-clutter, I’m leaving this one as-is: in all its vomitous glory. Because, most of the time, the mirror of fiction is kind to its more imperfect reflector. Truth can get pretty messy and you can't even get a window between yourself and it's ugliness; let alone a detached reflective surface…
This whole losing-a-generation-of-your-family-in-the-space-of-two-months stuff really sucks. The end.