Leaving Well

Short-listed Entry: Non-Fiction Category

By: Christine Riehl

Dust to Dust. Ashes to ashes. But parchment paper? Dry, rough, lifeless skin.  And he was alive.  Barely, but he was.  There was the ostomy bag lying on the hospital pad against the flowered rug, filling with ever darker amber urine.  There was the terrible anguish in his cries when we turned him ever so slightly every few hours.  There were the sores on his heels that refused to heal, would now never heal.  The bottles of pills – although now they marched in a line with bottles of liquid morphine we dropped into his gaping jaws. And there was – almost till the end – the swallowing of those drops.  Worst of all there was the sound of his lungs and throat trying to cough up the accumulation in his chest.  We kept trying to prop him up so he wouldn’t choke to death while he was dying.  And we took turns, my sister and I, sleeping on the floor in the room meant for “sitting” and “living” not sleeping and dying.  We slept beside our Dad to keep him comfortable and alive while he died.

I think it was Sunday morning that I touched his forehead and realized that his skin, like his mind, had already died.  With butterfly strokes, I massaged Aveeno lotion into his forehead, down his nose, over his cheeks.  But it didn’t help – it evaporated and pooled like oil on wood but not like cream into skin because his skin, one of (what is it?) six organ systems of the body, had already shut down, had already stopped functioning.

So much of my physical appearance – and particularly my skin – were like his, inherited blessedly from him.  Thanks to him, I too will look like I’m fifty-five when I’m eighty-two because I’ll still have a ruddy, colorful complexion.  Of course, I also got the short legs, long torso, and stocky build from Dad.

Yes, it was Sunday, Christmas Eve 2006.  That afternoon we called the hospice nurse to check on him, kind of tell us where things stood as we kept our vigil.  The nurse’s name was Tom and he touched Dad so lovingly and with such deep respect for the journey he was making, one he’d fought hard to avert.  After he checked Dad over, he joined us in the living room, kneeling down to talk to us.  He told us what a remarkable job we were doing of caring for him, that he could tell that Dad was comfortable and peaceful.  He too was concerned about choking so he delicately told us how to administer the morphine rectally and none of us even blanched at the thought.

Once again caught between the reality we have always known of fighting for health, for life, for keeping those we love out of harm’s way and helping him die, I got caught in a moment of exactness.  “Are you saying we can double the amount of morphine?  He’s already had so much today.”  I almost added, “I don’t want to give him too much,” but I could tell by the look on Tom’s face that it really wouldn’t matter how much we gave him.  At this moment in time, my father was somewhere between life and death and either addiction or overdose were really irrelevant.

Tom reviewed all the signs and measurable portents and told us that our father’s, Mom’s husband’s  body was well into its journey, that this is how the body shuts down, that he would “live” no more than three days.  My mother was aghast; begging Tom to make it sooner by saying it was so. I finally told her to just focus on Wednesday and if Death actually came knocking sooner she could invite him in and be grateful.

Christmas Eve.  I had become so immersed in the naturalness, the intimacy, and the immediacy of this mystery we were living and dying through that I forgot that the grandchildren might think that “having Christmas” at Mom and Dad’s while Grandpa lay dying in the next room was horrifying.  Fortunately my brother realized that even he wouldn’t feel right about opening presents and gasping with delight while one ear was cocked towards the next room to make sure our father and grandfather didn’t choke to death while he was dying.  Just as it still doesn’t occur to me that my story is about mystery and beauty, not horror.  When you look straight at death, it ceases to be so frightening.


The previous Sunday, December 17th, my sister called me in Washington to request that I come home as soon as I could rather than on Friday, December 22.  She thought our mother was losing it and she just couldn’t handle that too.  My mother may be the person who lived in the same house with Dad, cajoled him to eat, and had to “live” with, but my younger sister had devoted her whole life to taking care of him.  She basically took up residence for three weeks in October 2003 at the Cleveland Clinic when he had his bladder removed to prevent his dying of the very cancer which was killing him now.  She spent countless hours patiently listening to accounts of real and imagined pain, terrified pleas to please take him to the doctor yet again in search of the magic pill which would this time make him well, and endless descriptions of bowel movements and assorted measures to induce them.  One massive radiation treatment was the last measure that the medical community felt he could tolerate without killing him – to keep him from dying.  Accepting, internalizing, believing that this was a death sentence and that they, father and youngest daughter, were about to lose a hard-fought battle together almost killed her too.

So I came home on Tuesday.  Lake Erie reflected the setting red sun outside the sitting room.  Mom was preparing dinner and Dad was dressed and sitting in his chair with his eyes closed as he had been for the last year.  All those trips to Cleveland may have given him a bit more life but there certainly wasn’t much quality to it.  He opened his eyes and a vision of relief and joy spread across that still-at-82 wrinkleless face.  “Oh, I’m so glad to see you, hon’,” he said weakly.  At that moment, I knew I would not be returning to Washington before Dad died.

I could never have imagined that it would be less than a week though.  Here he was dressed in khaki pants, a flannel shirt, and a grandfatherly sweater, recent concessions from the ever-present  business man’s button-down shirt and tie.  He was still able to explain to my mother (and truth be told, to me whose job at the State Department it was to work on just these issues) how the World Bank and the IMF work and why Kosovo needed to become its own country so that…..  When Mom called us to dinner, he was able to get up and shuffle his walker to the kitchen and eat his whole small meal.  We talked of big things and small things, how it hadn’t snowed yet, how gracious the freighters looked out on the lake, how terrible and tragic the war in Iraq was.

Earlier that day, Tuesday, December 19, the hospital bed had been delivered and set up in the sitting room.  He said that he would probably take his naps there but was adamant that he would sleep in his own bed, in his pajamas at night and get dressed again every morning.  A nurse came at nine each morning and night to help him do just that, but it was getting so that each transition took several hours because of the pain and weakness.  Mary (yes, that was her name), herself the mother of two with a fulltime day job, begrudged him nothing, sat patiently by his bed while he summoned the energy to get back into or out of it.

My sister didn’t want to believe it when Mom said that Dad told her that he was afraid he wouldn’t make it till Christmas; that he wished that there were some medicine that would give him enough pep for when the kids came on Christmas morning.  And I could hardly believe it myself because never has there been a man less resigned or less at peace with death.  But that day as my mother prepared what turned out to be the last real meal he ate, he told me.  Not directly.  He told me that he had a long talk with my son Scott that afternoon. “I told him that I hoped he wouldn’t be mad at me for not fighting any longer but that he was going to die.  I guess there comes a time when I have to accept that there is nothing more that can be done.  I think Scott understood.” As though that mattered.  And so that I too could forgive him for giving up.

Dad had done us a favor I could never have anticipated.  There was no elephant in the living room to tiptoe around.  We didn’t have to pretend that he might feel better tomorrow.  No one had to cajole him to get up and move around a bit or eat his beans or not eat eggs because of the cholesterol.

Dad slept in his chair most of Wednesday.  He managed a few bites of lunch and dinner – but not at the kitchen table – and had a tough time getting to bed.  We knew that we would be without Mary for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  I helped Mary on Thursday morning so that I would know all the required bathing, dressing, and hygiene routine.  “Dad, how about spending the day in you p.j.s?  You don’t have to go through all this business of getting dressed.” Wrong. But it was the last time.  Later when he woke up from his nap in the hospital bed, I said “Why don’t you just sleep here tonight?  It would be so much easier for you than …” Wrong again. But that was the last night he would sleep in his own bed.

At 4:00 on Thursday afternoon, my identical twin daughters, Cathie and Ashley, the babies of the family of whom he was so proud, arrived from New York City.  (Whatever had made them decide to come home two days early months ago?) “Hey, Dad, open your eyes.  Look who’s here.” I will never forget the look on his face or the joy in his eyes.  The sight of those girls was all he’d been holding on for.

So on Friday morning we began the real vigil. Plans were changed and changed again.  He spent Friday in his chair but he never really spoke or ate again.  His regularly scheduled hospice nurse told us that it could be two more weeks but the end was coming.  The grandchildren who weren’t terrified came around.  I cooked my kids’ favorite country captain chicken and we ate on our laps, gathered around his chair that night.  There was no pressure on the grandchildren who couldn’t face watching my father slip away to come over.  In a family that had been terrorized by shoulds and oughts, deadlines and rules, it was anything goes.  We set up a puzzle and laughed and cried while we took turns sitting and sleeping by Dad while his life drained away.

Which brings me back to the mystery.  When did my father die?  When he couldn’t be roused anymore on Friday?  How many days after he stopped taking any food or water? When those bowels that had been coaxed into production for years gave up control and he had to be changed like a baby? When the fluid filling his lungs was visible in his throat and he sounded like a percolator forcing air through water?

Was it when my mother, brother, sister and I sobbed together on Christmas afternoon when his heart officially stopped beating? Or was it days earlier when his skin had failed and become lifeless?

I can’t answer these questions. I’d never thought to ask them before. But in the experience of this dying there was also birth.  Two sisters and a brother who had always “liked” each other and risen to each other’s’ emergencies were now bonded much more tightly than during their childhood.  We had shared a firsthand face-to-face glimpse of the mystery of death.  We hadn’t solved the mystery but we had walked straight into it, bravely, graciously, and with love for a man who had been difficult to love but who had loved us fiercely in the only ways he knew. He had left us with the final gift of allowing us to take the final journey with him right up to its mysterious end – filled with not one regret, total forgiveness, and bonded by awe to him in death even more than in life.


11 thoughts on “Leaving Well

    • Thanks for this, Donna. I rectified the listing error and appreciate your comments. So many people have had my experience so the story resonates with lots of us.

      I tried to respond earlier so please excuse the tardy note.

  1. Chris….I felt like I was spending the weekend with you, and your Dad, and your family. Lots of memories from a long a go past. I could see your Mom so vividly in your writing. So poignant….
    With love,
    Susan McCain Brezina

    • Susan, thanks so much for your comments. Wow, you and I really are reaching across time. I’m so happy to have reconnected this way. It would be lovely to get together. And, as with the previous post, I really did try to respond earlier. It took a while to figure out how to do it! Chris

  2. Christine’s stark, sensitive and very real remembrance truly resonnates powerfully for anyone who has lost a lifelong love. She has captured exquisitely the pain and confusion and wonder that accompanies a parent’s passing. I was very moved and strangely comforted by “Leaving Well.”
    Joan McGrath

  3. Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful comments.

    Happy New Year. May it be one filled with joy and lots of good writing.

  4. Pingback: Writing Competition Short Lists | pixelhose

  5. This is a moving, well written story. I do not know you, but you pull me into your life & make me care about you and your family. That is a good writer. Thank you for sharing.

Comments are closed.