Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Lessons in death...

A few mornings ago, I read this article on Huffington Post, "5 Things I Learned From Helping My Dad Die." Despite literally watching my own dad die, despite the vivid memories I have of how his last breath sounded, I read the essay in its entirety without crying. And I just wrote this post without crying. While those acknowledgments give a partial answer to the prompt itself, I think a more complete answer is important...not because my understanding of the death process reflects some profound and instructive emotional journey, but because it pays tribute to the person my dad was, the person my mom is, and the person I have a better chance of becoming because I am their child. Just as Mom always let Dad live the way he wanted (and he, her), she helped him die that same way: with quiet dignity, with confidence of self, with humor, and with acknowledgment that sometimes life just "is what it is."
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For those who don't know, my dad died of colon cancer in 2010, some ten years or so after initial diagnosis. For those who have read this blog much at all, you know that he was my hero. I can look at pictures today or think of some funny quip he offered and immediately break down in tears. I remain heartbroken. I miss him literally everyday. And, I will unabashedly tell you that those things that many find comforting like "he's in a better place," or "things happen for a reason" just make me angry. Sure, we can always look back at something bad and find some encrypted lesson to make ourselves feel better. I certainly don't assume that to mean, however, that there is some great cosmic order. Horrible things happen to wonderful people. No higher being I could respect would destine that. And I say that only to preface the seemingly and potentially contradictory points that follow. Just because I learned valuable things between 2000 and 2010 does not mean that I am grateful for the experience. That's ridiculous. I would trade anything I know/own/have done to have my dad back.

Nevertheless, for the reason mentioned in the opening paragraph, here are five things I learned from helping and/or watching my dad die:

-We should all be clear as to how our funeral and burial should go. Dad talked to the preachers he wanted to preside over the service and explained how he didn't want a sermon. Mom knew what kind of music he wanted. He was buried in his Wranglers and button-down shirt by his barn.  Avoiding these conversations will not delay death. Be realistic and plan a service that honors the person you/they actually were. Sure, everyone hopes that funerals provide some comfort to the family, but it seems more important that they celebrate the things the person loved. After the deaths in my life from 2008-present, I started and have revised a "Funeral Requests" document that outlines how things should go for me.  Lord knows there better be some Avett Brothers playing rather than gospel hymns.

-There is no shame in letting your loved ones help you. It doesn't matter if that entails cutting your toenails while you're in a hospital bed, or spending the night on the couch beside you so they can wake up and get you homemade soup in the middle of the night and then jump to grab the mug when you nod off, or being a nurse that handles any issue without flinching or disgust, or sleeping in waiting room chairs while you're in the ICU or the fold-out oversized chairs, night after night, when you get moved to a room or canceling or changing plans because it is obvious you don't feel good even though you were willing to go. Your loved ones want to do these things. Let them.

-There are things worse than death. Drawn-out suffering is good for no one and sometimes there is a peace that comes when someone dies.  Dad pulled through more surgeries, treatments, and procedures than even the strongest man should have been able to do. And even when it first became clear that he was in fact near death, he held strong for several weeks after the first night we were all called to the hospital. It was time, though, when it did happen in the middle of that particular night. Acknowledging this does not make anyone a bad person.

-Illness and impending death do not justify selfishness or pity parties.  Dad was in the Cumberland County Hospital for the last two months of his life. Every day when I would walk in, he would ask me about my day.  He acknowledged a life well-lived, a life in which he had always done "the best he could." He smiled when visitors stopped by and often said something witty or endearing. I love remembering his sly grin, appreciative and surprised eyes and the sound of his voice when he said, "well, there's Miss Chicago," upon seeing Caroline walk into the hospital room. He didn't get frustrated when we all got tickled at something ridiculous. He was nice to the doctors, nurses, technicians, and interns. He repeatedly said "thank you" to mom, the hospital staff, and anyone who came by to talk. Neither reveling in "why me?s" nor making other people feel sad/guilty/awkward has ever cured anyone.

-People of dignity, die with dignity.
***
I have written about my Dad a lot, but in all honesty, I don't know how much I have ever said about his actual death.  If I have failed to do so in previous posts, I want to thank the staff at the Cumberland County Hospital from the bottom of my heart for the respect they showed my entire family throughout the last few weeks of Dad's life. Sometimes kindness, expressed in funny stories from former Ag students, the providing of extra pillows for the wife who spent every night in the hospital room, in turning a blind eye when a beloved dog was not-so-sneakily brought in for a visit, is far more valuable than the most advanced medical technology. Thank you for giving him, and the rest of us, far greater quality of life than any family in the throes of death would ever expect. Thank you to all who came to visit and to all who continue to tell "CLT" stories when they see me. Thank you to my mother and my grandmother for being examples of strength and unselfishness; you never used cancer as an excuse or sympathy ploy; you worked in cahoots with Dad when he wanted to lie by omission to shield others from pain or worry; you didn't tiptoe around him just because he had an incurable disease; you accepted early on that things would be hard, but that you would deal with them as they came; you gave him physical support, mental focus, and emotional strength when he reached those very few moments of weakness. Thank you to my Dad for living and dying so nobly.

17 comments:

  1. Absolutely Beautiful!

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  2. Thank you both so, so much. I'm really glad you knew him and it means a lot to me that you took the time to comment.

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  3. Certain people have an "air" about them; they seem to command respect from others as well as give it right back. I respected your father and aspire to be that kind of man.

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    1. That was such a thoughtful thing to say, Jon Erik. Thank you so very much.

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  4. Thank you, Liza, for writing this blog. I have read and reread your words about the love of family and friends and how that love can lift us up when we most need it. CLT showed me how living a happy life did not revolve around "things and money" but through being authentic in one's actions, words and beliefs, through one's willingness to help others without seeking praise or recognition, through his hard work on this farm he loved so much and something we all witnessed on a daily basis ...his sense of humor. Curtis also showed his love for you three girls and me without much fanfare, but we knew how he felt, and I can honestly say he felt our love as well right up until his last breath.

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    1. Love you, Mom. Thank you for this.

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    2. Thank you for writing about your dad. There's a great legacy in the Turner family.

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    3. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Mrs. Jean.

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  5. Janice Bryant EnnisMarch 13, 2014 at 10:33 AM

    I grew up with Curtis and he was more like a brother than just a close family friend.

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    1. Janice, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. I imagine you have a story or two to tell on Dad:)

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  6. Death is such a profound thing. We're all going to get there one day. I am honored to have been a part of CLT's life, and death. He was an extraordinary man with an equally extraordinary family. Especially a middle daughter ; )

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    1. And I am equally honored to have been a part of your dad's. Love you a ton, CDKP.

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  7. I was glued to your every word. I knew your dad mostly through my brother, Steve. But I also knew your mom and Carolyn. I always enjoyed visiting with him at the KY State Fair and I found his witty ways to be quite entertaining. Your words have impacted my thoughts and actions. Thanks for sharing. Tamara Martin

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    1. Hi, Tamara. Thank you so much for commenting. I love hearing reflections on and stories about Dad. I'm glad you and Steve had a chance to know him. I really appreciate you reading.

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  8. Liza, I just read this blog about your dad and you truly have a way with words and helping someone get to know Curtis without ever meeting him. Zach had just gotten to be a part of your family during the latter part of Curtis' life and I wish we could have met him and got to know him. I know he had to be proud of all you girls as you are all special people in your own way with a wonderful mother's guidance along the way. I am so glad we have become family and hope in the years to come we can all become close friends. Sheree

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  9. Sheree, I appreciated your message so much. I, too, am so glad Adrienne and Zach found each other. Not only do I think they're pretty much perfect for each other, but I feel so lucky to now be connected to another wonderful family. I look forward to many good times for the Edwards/Turner clans:)

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