Wednesday, August 13, 2008


When why turns to when, a lesson concerning death is learned.

Doug was too weak to get out of bed when I first met him. He and his wife lived in a trailer house in the back woods of Louisiana near one of the swampy bayou. He was dying of colon cancer and had been a hospice patient for the past four months. His bones were held together by pale white skin. You had to look twice to see where his hairline began and if he had eyelashes at all. Over a short period of time I got well acquainted with him and we became close friends.

I would talk to him about various topics such as his past work, a limousine company owner with a fleet of two long white limousines. We talked about his hobbies, fishing and frog jigging in the swamps near his trailer. We also talked about his religious background. He was a 'twice a year Roman Catholic.' Attending church only on Easter and Christmas.

We talked about his feelings concerning his cancer and even about the Ensure he had to drink for nourishment. His wife would sometimes freeze the drink so he could nibble on it, when the weather was so hot and the air conditioning didn't do much good.

Doug had been a serious person all of his life and never did anything that could be considered spontaneous. He, like most of us had looked forward to his retirement years. He and his wife invested their savings in a large RV (RecreationalVehicle) in which they planned to tour America and live out their "golden years" on the road.

They planned driving into the mountains of the West and East and even had a plan to visit Alaska. As the retirement day approached, they purchased a fine Travel Home, more than an ordinary RV. They called it their "rolling mobile palace." They had their maps with each route lined out with a magic marker. He smiled when he told me "it drove like a dream."

"Oh," I said, "You've taken some trips all ready?"

"Not really, we just drove it over to Gulfport for a couple of days, sort of a shake down cruse." Then, with a sigh that sunk deep into his bony chest where each rib stood out like a Halloween skeleton, he continued, "That was the only time it's been out of the yard."

Our conversation stopped there, simply because I had nothing to offer by way of comfort. With a deep sadness I left his home, walked past the "Palace on Wheels", and went on to my home where I wished I had a dog to kick.

On, my very next visit, which I was hesitant to make because I was unsure of what I could do or say to comfort or to help Doug, I was thinking to myself as I drove up to his house and saw the "Palace on Wheels." What in the world can I say to help him find some sort of peace and a sense of accomplishment in his life now that he was living in the shadows of death? I thought to myself, maybe I should have waited a week or so before I came out here again. But, I'm here now, so I guess I'll get this visit over with.

I mustered up the courage to speak to Doug about his anticipation of death. He readily talked about his expectation, his fears and his one regret, that he wished he had spent more time on spiritual growth and getting to know Jesus, so that he might be more comfortable now. I ventured and asked him what I thought would be a difficult question. "What kind of advice can you give me that I could share with our hospice team, now that you are face-to-face with your own death?"

As I left the trailer passing by the "Palace on Wheels", Doug's last words resounded in my mind, a lesson for my own life. "If there is something you really want to do," he said, "don't wait. Just do it!" That's the message from Doug. It came long before the Nike commercial that says, "Just do it!"

Asking questions from those who are passing through the valley of death is a learning experience in itself. Bubba answered my question with a question, which
made me aware of my own dying process. We really do not know when we will get to our own shadowy valley. Doug answered my question to him with another personal thought provoking and inner look at my own life and death. If there is something I want to do, I had better "just do it."

When we are getting along on the road that leads to the shadow of death we will see the shadows and when we do see them we need to look ahead to the small point of light that is shining at the end of the darkness. Doug saw that light at the valley's end and that gave him the strength to walk through the shadows.

When one is in that dark valley or walking with someone who is in that valley, questions search for meaning. As the shadows get darker, the questions become more difficult. A hospice staff person can feel the question coming. It sometimes comes from a patient and sometimes from the family members, often from both. It's a question most of us have thought about, but hesitate to voice in the presence of others. It was the question that Doug and his wife asked me.

It was a question that comes sometimes after the 'Why's' stop, and the 'When's' question comes into the "accepting arena." The caregiver is exhausted to the point of burnout and, the Care-Receiver is struggling for life at each breath. That deep question emerges from the darkest shadow of the valley. With a sigh of resignation the patient and caregiver alike will ask, "Someone, please tell me, when will I die? When will my loved one die?"

That question causes flashing thoughts to go though my mind. Should I tell them, not to worry about that now? Shall I say, "You need to rest", or "Only God knows? It's in His hands now. Eat something, and you'll feel better. If you're in pain hospice can fix that. No one knows for sure. I don't understand. What makes you ask?" If I were as sick as you and hurting as much as you; or, if I were your caregiver and beginning to get tired of watching my loved one die, tired of managing pills, blue pads, enemas, Ensure, straws in water, watching in-put and out-put, counting breaths, I too would want to know, when this burden would be over for my loved one and me.

The answer is not found in a cliche? like, "Don't worry about it." There is really no answer anyone can give to comfort and inform a dying patient and their caregiver. To answer the when question with, "It may be in a day or two," can bring unfulfilled hope if on the third day they wake to the same pain. The answer "any time" leaves one anxious with days and dates getting mixed up with family communications.

Caregivers need to know the answer to when question in order to call out-of-town family and friends. To make arrangements for, you know what. To have the answer to the "when" question would be helpful in making future planning, but, in truth, no person can tell anyone the correct answer.

When the whys of a patient or caregiver turn to the question of when, there is no answer that will be truthful and comfortable. The dying process does not pay any attention to one's need for an answer. The body may go on automatic into a low running mode and only it knows for sure when it will come to its journey's end. That tired body will not attempt to inform the soul that it chooses to linger.

When why turns to when, a lesson can be learned. Death, like life, has its own timetable for whatever reason. Those who ask "when" are voicing the mystery of life. The elusive answer will only come at the last breath when one takes those final steps out of the Dark Shadows of the Valley of Death into the Eternity of Light.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My oldest first cousin died this year at the age of 65; he died too soon. He worked hard all his life for himself, his wife, and their two daughters. His work took him away from his family for many long, long stretches of time. He retired about 5-6 years ago. He lived to see the births of his four grandchildren, and to leave a definite memory of him in their minds. He knew he was dying, but told no one. He was use to keeping things hidden as he had worked as an FBI agent. I remember him saying to me not so long ago, "I did almost everything I wanted to do in life, and it has been an exciting life." He was in the midst of writing his memoirs about his work when he died. In looking back, the only hint of something amiss was his more frequent phone calls to chat. I wish I had taken more time to chat with him, learn more about him, appreciate him and his life's lessons more, and to express to him my love. Life is fleeting; don't wait to tell others you care about them.

Thank you, Tony, for sharing your dad's book with us. I'll be coming back to read subsequent chapters.