Living with mortality (part one)

Laura Wiebe
Laura Wiebe

Yeah, it's been a while. Encounters and confrontations with mortality, and my own ways of dealing with them, have made writing for any kind of public audience a non-priority, at least for me. But the thought of my poor website sitting here abandoned has finally gotten to me enough to bring me back. Mostly to talk about life, illness, dying and death.

[If any of my writing students ever read this, yes, I know I'm writing in sentence fragments. Feel free to critique my grammar and sentence structure if it gives you any satisfaction, but remember: context matters.]

Encounters with death

I was lucky enough to live a long time without anyone super close to me dying, except for pets. If you have a sense of how much I love and have loved my pets, you will know that losing them has never been anything close to easy. 

Eventually, though, I met up with the kind of death that slaps you across the face with your own mortality. 

Slowly losing my Dad

I am a youngest child, born long enough after my sisters to have felt like an only child at times. This has generally meant that my parents were older than my friends' parents - especially my Dad, who was eight years older than my Mom.

It was strange seeing my parents turn into old people. Sometimes I would look at them and see how different their bodies and faces now were from the idea of Mom and Dad I would always have in my mind. But while visual changes and signs of aging may have been jarring, it was really those moments when I realized that they could no longer do what they'd used to be able to do - that's when their aging and mortality struck me hardest. 

I remember having my Dad down to visit to do some fix-it work around the house, maybe ten years ago. He was having me do most of the actual work, teaching and guiding. But not just so I would have or develop these skills on my own - he actually didn't have the energy and strength for much fix-it work himself, and we called it a day much earlier than I had expected. From that day on he became a different kind of Dad. I was forced to realize that our roles and the dynamics between us were forever changed and on a path where the parent would increasingly need more help than he could provide.

Sharing time

As the youngest daughter, it seems I would and could never take on the kind of caregiver role my older sisters had to, stepped up to, accept. I was my father's "baby girl" until the end, and it always seemed like the time I spent with him was closer to fun time - time off from the burdens of being looked after. Because my sisters handled the tough responsibilities, I was free to just hang out with him, and to listen.

In his last months living on his own in his apartment we regularly spent Friday afternoons sharing lunch, going through pictures, and sorting through his bottomless files of family history and genealogy stuff. I will always treasure my memories of these hours. I even have a few audio recordings of stories and explanations from these visits.

Fading... and then gone

Eventually Dad had to move to a long-term care home. As far as these places go, it was nice (after a room and roommate change), and he seemed to have little trouble charming the workers/caregivers. His hearing loss at this point made phone calls impractical, and while teaching I found it hard to visit him as much I'd have liked. But we did have some time together in his final weeks.

On the last day I saw him he was apologizing for not being much fun or being able to entertain me - this is while he was in bed with significant pain and pneumonia. I told him with a chuckle that he didn't need to entertain me, that I just wanted to be with him. I showed him the early father's day card I had brought, and though I suspect the details didn't register, the thought did. I take comfort in him knowing, and having that reminder, that I loved him. 

And before I left that day, he died. He'd insisted on getting out of bed for a few minutes before dinner, and after, as the PSW and I were settling him back into bed, his heart stopped. My Dad basically died in my arms. 

After our Dad died

This was almost exactly three years ago. I was the same age the day he died as he was the day I was born.

My sisters came right away. Within a couple of days we were all saying goodbye as the body he left behind was given up to the cremation flames. A few days later I was in Spain, the reason I'd had to take him his father's day card early.

Dad was well memorialized. We had a kind of informal, immediate family service at his cremation. After I was back home, we had a funeral service at his church followed by a lunch in the church basement. And later, we held a service at the cemetery where and when we interred his ashes, and our cousin (his younger brother's oldest daughter) then hosted us all at her home for food, drink, memories and reconnecting.

I was and am still sad that my Dad died. I've cried many many tears (I've shed more tears just writing this post), and I've missed him. But the pain was muted in some ways by his age: when your Dad is well into his 80s you can't help but know death is coming sometime. And our relationship was, I think, as good as it could have been at the end. That too, is comforting. We spent time together and things between us were all good when he died.

What next?

But my Dad dying also felt like the start of something else. It inevitably made me more aware of my Mom's mortality, and my own. It feels like that was the moment I myself truly slipped from the growing up side of life's mountain to the approaching death downward slope. This idea, in particular, has been a significant part of my life ever since, in multiple ways. ... As anyone who bothers to read this and the coming posts will see.

Dad's obituary: