Spoiler alert (dad, a lifelong movie fan, would have appreciated that): the hero of this story dies at the end. Still haven’t quite wrapped my mind around this, but my dad, Dennis Agle (the original; I’m Junior) passed away on Thursday, Nov. 7, 2013.
I recognize that many of the seven (I’m not willing to concede that it is now six, since I like to think dad will continue to follow it as time permits) readers of my blog were fortunate enough to know my dad as well. But for any that didn’t know him, let me just say that he was as smart, funny, supportive, service-giving and compassionate man as you’ll ever meet.
I had the privilege of spending the last week of his mortal journey with him. I didn’t know when I booked the trip that it would be his last week. I had planned to spend a few days with my parents helping out around the house, especially since dad was continuing to decline, albeit very gradually. But the day before I took off, dad’s legs gave out completely, and it became clear that the tumors that he had been diagnosed with in June were reaching an advanced stage.
I wish I could say that that last week was spent at dad’s side receiving his final words of wisdom. But within hours of my arriving, his sickness had gotten so severe that he was usually either in too much pain to talk or mercifully asleep. Still, the lessons came. Sometimes with words. Sometimes without.
Here are a few.
“Help me get up.”
As the disease was doing its damage, it clouded his thinking more and more each day of that last week. Thoughts would tumble out of his mouth in ways that wouldn’t always make sense. But one frequent request that came up was a request to help him get up. He would grab the rails on the side of the bed and try to pull, but he had no strength to perform the act himself, so he would ask for help. We would have to remind him over and over again that he couldn’t get up, that it wasn’t safe.
Once he was so insistent that we got him to the point where he was sitting on the side of the bed. But then he wanted to stand. “Help me get up.” I finally put my arms around him and lifted him to his legs, which were very unsteady. After a few nerve-wracking moments, we finally got him back to bed, the precarious ordeal over, hopeful that he would then see that getting up was no longer an option.
But it didn’t take long before he would say it again. “Help me get up.”
It’s now three days after he passed away. The first day, I was fine. The second day, yesterday, was the big surprise for me: I was a mess. I lashed out irrationally at loved ones. As it was a Saturday, I decided to go to the office to try to catch up on some work, but mostly I stared. Deep funk. I thought for a moment that a call to my folks would cheer me up, as it usually did. Then I realized the irony of that. I had not wanted to call mom much, so she could get some much-needed rest, but then I rationalized to myself that she might be feeling the same. So I called.
She had to say hello a couple of times before I could compose myself enough to say, “It’s me.” A talk with her helped. I went home and talked with my wife for a bit. That helped. I prayed. That helped, too.
Normally, I like to think of myself as self-reliant/self-fixer. But maybe dad was right. Maybe sometimes it’s okay to reach out to others every now and then and say, “Help me get up.”
“I want to go home.”
This was another of dad’s go-to phrases in his last days. It would often be accompanied with his other phrase, “Help me get up,” and by his efforts to try to pull himself up. I eventually surmised that he thought he was in the hospital, a place he fairly despised, and wanted to go home. So we would attempt to calm him by telling him he was home, safe in his own room, and he could relax and sleep. That would calm him for a moment, but then the “I want to go home/help me get up” cycle would repeat.
Once, when I was answering each “I want to go home” with a “Dad, you are home,” he looked at me right in the eyes to grab my full attention, stopped squirming and said, as if to clarify, “I’m ready to die.” His faith in the plan of salvation is unquestionable. He knows that what lies ahead beats what’s happening here hands down. He knows he has to go through this, but what he really wants is to go not to his home in San Juan Capistrano (as heavenly as it is), but to his heavenly home.
That moment of clarity was brief, and soon the confused “I want to go home” returned, but I never heard those words again in the same way.
“Thank you very much.”
By and large, hospice nurses and aides are wonderful human beings. They come in, and though they have seen people in varying stages of the end of their lives countless times, give service so compassionately. Of the nurses we had, nurse Trudy was the best. Even when dad seemed completely unconscious, she would call his name, tell him she was here, rub his hand, apologize that hers were cold, and then tell him what she was doing as she was doing it.
Sometimes “it” would be an unpleasant thing that would cause him a lot of discomfort. And sometimes dad would complain and moan and beg us to stop, even though it had to be done. And when it was done, even during the times that it seemed like dad had remained unconscious the whole time, and even those times when I’m sure to dad it felt not far removed from a torture session, dad would almost always mutter, “Thank you very much.” It would catch some nurses, who assumed he was unconscious, off guard, and they’d smile and say “You’re welcome.”
Gratitude. Kindness. There’s always time to be polite. That was a dad thing, right up to the end.
Context makes all the difference
Once, in an effort to distract dad from his discomfort and confusion, I decided I would try to read to him. I looked around the room and saw a little book on mom’s bedside table. It was filled with illustrations and the text of a favorite talk from one of our church leaders, Dieter Uchtdorf. It was based on the “forget me not” flower.
I suspect if I had heard this talk, even in person, or if I had read it alone, it would have been a lovely talk, worth remembering. But there was something about reading it to dad under these circumstances that turned the words into giant, emotional sledgehammers. I had to stop several times while I awaited for my vocal range to return to the human audible spectrum, especially when I got to the fifth and final part of his talk, which really choked me up.
Wherever you are, whatever your circumstances may be, you are not forgotten. No matter how dark your days may seem, no matter how insignificant you may feel, no matter how overshadowed you think you may be, your Heavenly Father has not forgotten you. In fact, He loves you with an infinite love.
Just think of it: You are known and remembered by the most majestic, powerful, and glorious Being in the universe! You are loved by the King of infinite space and everlasting time!
He who created and knows the stars knows you and your name.
God loves you because you are His child. He loves you even though at times you may feel lonely or make mistakes.
The love of God and the power of the restored gospel are redemptive and saving. If you will only allow His divine love into your life, it can dress any wound, heal any hurt, and soften any sorrow. (reference)
Oof. Another day, when he was struggling, I looked for something else to read. I wanted something that he was familiar with, so that maybe he could dial in and follow along. I found a Bible. Large print, which was merciful to my eyes in the dimly lit room. This will probably seem dumb to anyone reading this, and in retrospect, it does to me, too. But if you wanted to read a familiar Bible passage that you could easily find, what would it be? For me, it was Psalms 23. Huge mistake. I almost couldn’t make it through. But never had these words hit so close to home for me.
I decided that I had to find something else familiar, but perhaps a little more manageable. The Christmas story. Dad always loved the Christmas story. I flipped to Luke 1 and 2.
And right at the end of Luke 1, there was a verse that I never recall reading before. But I was sitting there in that darkened room with my struggling dad, when I came to verse 79:
To give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace. (reference)
Those few words probably took 5 minutes for me to get through.
There were these emotional minefields every few verses when reading them in this way. This context, while heart-wrenching, helped me see these familiar things in a new way. It happened when I tried to switch to singing a few hymns I thought he would like, too.
I don’t know how much I’m missing in life by going through the motions in the usual way. I want to see and experience things more fully, as dad taught me this week.
The first day I got there was the day I had my last real conversation with dad. I didn’t know that it would be my last real conversation at the time. I had hoped that that day was an aberration, and that he would rebound the next day and we could have many more conversations. But each day thereafter, he got worse and worse, and the pain and medications to help manage his pain were taking their toll.
But in that last conversation, though it was probably not much more than five minutes, he shared with me his love of family, his gratitude for the gospel plan that we could be together forever. As he talked, his voice became emotional and it made it hard for him to continue (I know where I get this from), but he pressed forward, recognizing that it had to be said.
To me, those words about his love for his family and the gospel were his last words. And I will never forget: Dad was a firm believer.
Don’t forget recreation
Dad was always a firm believer in the importance of taking time for recreation. As my sister reminded me in her blog, it’s important to carve out time for recreation, even when life seems busy. Dad and mom once took their kids out of school early (I wondered what was wrong), then piled us into a car, drove us to the nearest big city so we could see the new movie “Fiddler on the Roof.” Not only that, but we stayed in a hotel that night, got to skip school the next day and saw the movie, “The Cowboys.”
As Ruth said, “for no reason other than they wanted to do something special. For no reason.”
At 80 years old, dad felt like if he was going to be confined to that hospital bed in his room, he wanted a big screen in there. So little brother Erik (bless his heart), who had engineered the massive collection of mystery cables and boxes and remotes that make up the folks’ entertainment console, came over and moved the big screen into dad’s room. He ended up not being able to watch a grand total of maybe an hour or two of TV in that last week, but it was there. Point made.
“Thanks for staying so long.”
Once, our efforts to calm him in the middle of a semi-conscious episode reached a certain level of annoyance, and he asked us to go. I looked at mom, and she nodded that maybe we should just step away for awhile. So we stepped away to the foot of the bed. Then dad motioned for us to keep going and said, “Thank you. And thanks for staying so long.”
Mom and I just looked at each other and laughed, because this was so unlike dad. Dad was a funny man. But his humor wasn’t sarcastic or at the expense of others, which cuts down severely the opportunities for humor. You had to work harder to achieve humor with dad.
But if you could make him laugh, it was worth it.
We are not our bodies
I remember my last hug and goodbye to dad. He was unconscious. Struggling for every breath. I put my arms around him, put my mouth next to his ear and told him I loved him, that no one could’ve had a better dad, and that I would seem him again soon.
As I broke the hug and looked down at his failing body, I confess I felt like he wasn’t in there any more.
After he passed away, the next day I went into my closet at home to get dressed. I looked down and saw my wool slippers, which are just like dad’s. Suddenly, I felt like he was there and giving me that hug I missed the day before. Tears flowed.
Oct. 31 to Nov. 7, 2013 was, I dare say, the roughest week of my life. In the middle of it, I blogged about wondering why such a good man who had devoted so much of his life to serving others had to go through such a trial. As I still try to process that, I sense that I will never be the same. That week has changed me forever. I will look at things differently. I will remember some things that I’ve forgotten. I will seek to be kinder to everyone I meet. In other words, I will seek to make Jr. a little more like Sr.
Maybe dad didn’t have to go through that last week for him. Maybe he did it for others, like me. That would be like dad.
And that might be the greatest lesson of all.