We are losing him, and losing him fast. On Friday evening, I recorded my father making short video postcards to send to his granddaughters Hannah and Claire, who were both on the road, coming to his bedside to tell him goodbye. His voice was fragile, but his mind was clear. “I love you with all my heart,” he said to them, “and I can’t wait to see you.”
On Saturday morning, he awoke speaking out of his head. It wasn’t him anymore, but like a dreamer, talking in his sleep. Word got out that Ray was fading, and close friends and family began streaming in. I’m not sure how much of this he was aware of, because he was going in and out of the mist all day. Folks came to tell him goodbye.
At day’s end, one of his oldest and closest friends brought him a homemade chocolate pie, his favorite. Daddy was alert and able to eat three bites — the only food he consumed all day. He said, “That was the best filling I ever ate in my life.” It was possible to believe it was true.
Claire arrived, and was grieved to the point of sobbing that her Paw could not be awakened to talk to her. But later in the evening, he came around, and they spent time together. After supper, I asked her if she wanted to pray at his bedside with me. “I was hoping you would ask,” she said. And so we went into his bedroom, shut the door, and began our prayers.
After we prayed for a while, I asked Claire to forgive me all the things I had done to her to cause such hard-heartedness in our family. Claire is a serious, observant Christian, and asked me the same thing. We talked about why our family is broken, and how neither one of us wanted to live this way. It was such a moment of healing grace. Paw was in and out of consciousness, and murmured that his legs hurt. I retrieved a bottle of lotion, and each of us took one of his bare, cool feet, and rubbed the sweet-smelling ointment into his skin.
“Ohhhh, that feels so good,” he said.
We sat with him a while longer, telling him how much we loved him, and thanking him for all he has done for us. Claire held his hand, which he squeezed tightly. I am fascinated by his mottled, craggy hands. “Daddy, I bless your hands,” I told him. “Those hands built this house. Those hands tilled the soil on our land. Those hands split the wood that kept us warm in the winter. Those hands held Ruthie and me when we were little, and they have held all six of your grandchildren.”
His eyes did not open, but I am sure he heard me. At one point, I had to stand at the head of his bed and reposition the oxygen tube in his nose. As I leaned in close, I said the psalm in his ear: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want… .” I continued, and saw his lips moving as I recited. Claire’s eyes widened; even through the fog of death, Paw was praying the 23rd Psalm. The grace of that moment! I cannot do it justice.
He opened his eyes at last, and we talked a little bit about Ruthie, whose photo sits beside his bed. “What are you going to say to her when you see her?” I asked.
“Hello, sugar, how you been doin’?” he rasped. “What can I do for you?”
Claire nearly laughed out loud. “Isn’t that just like him?” I said.
“It’s just like him,” she agreed.
It finally was time to let Paw rest, so we stood, and embraced at his bedside, vowing to let Jesus Christ be the mortar that holds us together, and to walk out of this room starting anew. Such a blessing, I can’t even tell you.
Hannah arrived from California sometime late in the night, and she and Mam stayed up till five a.m. talking. All day Sunday has seen another parade of people, this time mostly family members, coming to say goodbye. We are at the stage now where the only thing we can do is to keep him comfortable until the end, which is coming very soon. It has been a very south Louisiana day here. People showing up with fried chicken, roast pork loin, pulled pork, desserts, and such. I have been my father’s Jeeves, taking people back to see him. He has been surprisingly lucid today. One of the folks who came by later in the day, when I announced her, he said, “Darlin’, I love you so much. It is so good to have friends.”
Isn’t it just? So many of these men who have filed in and out these past two days I saw as a small boy, standing in the kitchen in their camo gear, after deer hunting. I have smelled fish on their pants and crawfish boil on their fingers, all in the company of Daddy. And now, here they are, at the end of his life, all of them balder, grayer, more stooped, paying respect.
Because this is south Louisiana, I have been mixing drinks all day for folks, making sure everyone is happy and filled with good food and cheer. At dusk, my mom, who has been under such intense stress for so long, and who had had one of my frozen concoctions, was dancing in the living room with Hannah, singing “Stand By Me” while Lucas played the tune on his guitar. Before Claire left to go back to boarding school, we took a photo of all six of Paw’s grandchildren, standing with him at the top of his bed, like the crown of a mighty oak.
What is happening is a thing of great and terrible beauty. In death, there is life, even new life. Several of us are keeping vigil throughout the night at his bedside.
He wanted to die at home. He is dying at home. He was born at home, in a cottage two miles from where he will breathe his last. He lived among the people who came to see him these past two days, and lay dying in their presence. No one should romanticize death, and no one who has had to witness the inexorable breakdown of my proud daddy’s body would be at risk for it. Still, when I die, I hope I am granted the mercy of passing as my father will have done: at home, surrounded by friends, family, and those who love me, and whom I have loved.
(I will never be able to say it often enough: home hospice care is a gift of God.)
Anyway, in Starhill right now, we are practicing how to die well here, and in so doing, we are also practicing resurrection.
UPDATE: It’s Monday morning, and he is still here, unconscious but holding on. We have told him how much we love him, and how he needs to let go, and to go to God. He is at peace, and in no pain. Thanks for your prayers.