As I sat patiently in the airport waiting for my plane to arrive, I quietly watched the people around me. I wondered where they were going and what they were going to do once they got there. I listened to some laugh, some talk in hushed tones, and I watched as some just slept, oblivious to anyone around them. I had no doubt that others watched me as I sat alone, wondering the same things about me. Surely, they couldn’t guess how much my heart ached, and how I wished I did not have to board this plane. As they called our flight and we began to board, I prayed our flight would go well. I was not eager to get to my final destination, as my heart knew what awaited me. Yet, I was anxious to do the work that I knew I was being called to do.
When the plane touched down, my heart sank. I knew that once I stepped off the plane my time in Kansas City was going to be difficult. It would be difficult physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Suddenly, I wasn’t sure I was actually prepared for what awaited me. I was headed to help my mother-in-law with my beloved father-in-law’s final care. He was failing physically and was now in hospice care. My husband and I had left his side just a mere five days prior. We had driven to see him, knowing then he was failing, and to help with his care. At that time he was still able to walk, talk, and feed himself. However, I felt that this would not be the case for long. I knew he would be leaving us soon. I felt an overwhelming need to be at his side. Several days after arriving back in Atlanta, we made the decision that I would return to help as he continued to decline. It was both an easy decision to make and a very difficult one, too. I couldn’t imagine not helping in his care, but I couldn’t imagine seeing him helpless and dying either.
When I crossed the threshold of their home, I could see that my instincts were right. As painful as I knew my time would be there I was so grateful we had made the decision for me to come. In the days that followed, my mother-in-law and I would live and breathe solely to take care of of my father-in-law. We tried our best to ease his suffering as much as we could. We tried to make sure he was never alone. Our conversations were about him and his care. We bathed him and fixed his bedding. We fed him when he could eat. We changed his linens and his clothes. We held a straw to his lips so he could drink. We welcomed people into the home and allowed them to visit with him one last time. We rubbed his feet and legs to help the swelling, wiped his forehead with damp cloths, and tried our best to make him comfortable even though we knew comfort was not going to come. We slept beside him and we prayed.
When he deteriorated so much that we knew we would not be able to properly care for him at home we made the painful decision to allow him to be moved to a care facility just a half mile away. He was moved and settled into his room for just a mere 30 minutes when his nurse told us that she thought he was leaving us. My mother-in-law grasped one hand and I held tightly to his other. We whispered our love to him and I caressed his head. I kissed him and told him we would be alright. We reassured him that he could go. The minute seemed to last forever and not long enough all at the same time… and then he was gone. I buried my face into the crook of his neck and cried.
The days that followed were difficult, too. We had already been to the funeral home to set up arrangements before he had even passed, but there was still so much to do. There was his service to plan, flowers to be picked out, programs and obituaries to be written, out of town relatives to inform. We needed to get hospice to come to pick up his bed and other items we had used in his care, the house to clean. And we had to get my own family from Atlanta to Kansas City. Together we worked to get it all accomplished. It was a different kind of busy and a different kind of stress, but it was still so hard. We kept reminding ourselves that it was all in the name of love for my husband’s dear father. We wanted to show how much his life had impacted others and how much we love, respected, and cherished him.
You see, we teach that all life should be respected and cherished, but often we only focus on those in the womb. People outside of the life movement accuse us of only be concerned with unborn babies and not the rest of the living. Of course that is untrue! As Catholics we know that to protect life, to respect life, we have to begin with life in the womb, but also to continue our efforts all the way until death. Our efforts must continue throughout the life of every individual. We don’t stop once they have been born; once they are out of a dangerous living situation; once we know they have enough to eat. No, our efforts must be all the way until death. We must protect the dignity of life even as the living are dying.
When we become parents, we are sometimes caught off guard over the feelings we suddenly feel for our newborn babies. We are struck with a love we could never imagine before this moment! We come to understand God’s unending and unconditional love for us as we love our own children. I believe that in taking care of those we love who are dying we come to understand God’s love and compassion in a different way. Our heart aches at the thought of being separated from those we love; God aches when we are not near Him. We cry to know someone we love is in so much pain; God cries for us too when we are in pain. We hope for healing; God hopes, too. We pray for our loved one to be finally with the Lord; God dearly wishes us to be beside Him as well. Just as we could never imagine the love we would feel holding our newborn baby in our arms, we also can’t imagine the love we will receive from helping a loved one die with dignity and grace.
I cannot begin to describe here how thankful I feel that God allowed me to be beside my father-in-law as he took his last breaths. To be holding his hand as he left his earthly home was overwhelming. My heart both cried in despair and rejoiced at his leaving. How lucky he was to be nearer to our Lord! How sad I was that he was no longer beside me. My heart aches at what we lost the day we said goodbye to such a great man. My soul rejoices at the legacy he leaves with us… a legacy of joy and laughter, faith and grace, hope and love. I thank God each day that I was granted the gift of helping my cherished father-in-law die with dignity – surrounded by love.
I pray that when God decides it is my time to leave this earthly home that I, too, will die safe in His arms surrounded by those who love me. What a beautiful gift to be given.
© 2014. Michelle Fritz. All rights reserved.