100: The Long Goodbye

100: The Long Goodbye

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

The Long Goodbye

Man’s feelings are always purest and most glowing in the hour of meeting and of farewell.

~Jean Paul Richter

I listened to Nathan’s anguished whisper, tears rolling down his cheeks. “Please take me home.” Easing down beside him, I grasped his hand, trying to ignore the fear that clutched my heart… but I knew. There aren’t many secrets between partners of 52 years. Slumped against wadded sheets, his face ashen, hopeless, his hands and arms bruised from IVs, he meant, “Take me home and let me die in peace.” Six hospital admissions in four months, and he was exhausted, resigned.

The doctor agreed. “And besides that, he hates me,” he added. That was true.

Later, alone in the darkened ICU waiting room, my mind wandered back to that hot August evening when Nathan and I had promised “… in sickness and in health… ’til death us do part.” We blithely mumbled, “I do.” I sank lower in the chair, sobbing quietly when the words to a favorite hymn about the breath of God filling the body with new life came to mind.

I could not cure Nathan’s chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but I could pray for God’s healing breath. I hummed the soothing melody, and the verses offered peace at last. He was in God’s hands—as he had always been.

On that cold December day, I enrolled Nathan with hospice and brought him home, knowing that our time together might be measured in hours, two weeks at the most. I watched in stony silence as the master bedroom and bath were transformed into a crowded semblance of a hospital room. Equipment lined the walls, was stored under the hospital bed, beside it, stashed in the closet, and in every drawer of the bathroom cabinets. It didn’t matter to Nathan. He was home. I wandered around in a fog trying to keep track of all the schedules.

After two weeks, I could see hope in Nathan’s eyes. Hospice showed us exercises to strengthen his body and to conserve his available oxygen. I’d urge, “Let’s try four more.” Mentally, I set small goals: get out of bed, walk around the room, go to work at the computer.

I hated the wheelchair until I realized it was only a tool, a way out of the room. He could relax by the fireplace, his favorite spot to sit. His feet propped on the hearth enjoying a good movie, he’d comment, “Sometimes, I don’t feel sick at all.” My heart warmed that he remembered what it felt like to be well.

I would sit beside him and just touch him to let him know that regardless of how the disease destroyed his body, he was still the same person to me.

Dreary winter days dwindled by, and spring sunshine created shadows through the trees. The next challenge was to go outside. It would require stronger legs to navigate steps. I dragged out my four-inch aerobic step, put it between the walker legs and said, “It’s up, up, down, down. Let’s get ready to go outside.” It worked.

It’s hard to give care 24/7. Stress is overpowering. Exhaustion, sleepless nights, missed calls for help, guilt from not doing enough or from hovering too much. The delicate balance changes every day, and it’s never perfect. Caregiving is not one-sided. Like so many other times during our years together, Nathan and I ministered to each other.

I carted in the medicines and breathing treatments four times a day, and he taught me how to change the spark plugs and battery on the lawn mower. I tried to be the chef and create inviting meals. In return, he showed me how to replace a faulty light switch without being electrocuted. When I announced, “It’s Wednesday. My name is Jean, and I’m your nurse for today,” he rolled his eyes while formulating a reply.

“I need to show you how to use the air compressor so that you can inflate the tire on the wheelbarrow.” Not too exciting. One day after exercising, he remarked in surprise, “Look, I’ve got muscles again,” showing off his biceps.

Unfortunately, there were episodes in between when hospice would caution, “He may not come out of it.” He had already surpassed anybody’s expectations. The right-side heart failure and advanced COPD made recovery less successful. Each morning, I would peek around the corner into his room, fearful of what I was going to see—Nathan sleeping or propped up in bed struggling to breathe.

I planned our 53rd wedding anniversary, sure that it would be the last. Both our rings needed repair. “I love my rings, and I want to wear them again.” He smiled because the set had been his choice.

Friends visited, but nothing raised Nathan’s spirits like pizza and beer lunches with old college buddies. His eyes brightened, and laughter filled the house at the outlandish stories of marching band trips and dance gigs. “I hope they never get tired of coming,” he said.

For 16 months, Nathan’s care focused on his quality of life while the quantity of his days slipped away. It was his decision to be at home in the house he built, surrounded by the flowerbeds he worked and relaxing on the patio he bricked. He could enjoy the deer that wandered out of the woods, nibbling on the nuts and vines. It thrilled him to watch a doe tiptoe close to the house and snatch every hosta leaf in the garden.

In his last hours, Nathan lay comfortably in bed, cradled by soft pillows. The morning sun warmed his room. I soothed his body with a fragrant lotion to let him know that he was not alone. Standing close by, I placed my cheek next to his, and whispered, “I love you,” and added a kiss on the warm, moist lips that I had loved so long.

I soon realized that his breathing had stopped, and he had quietly gone to his eternal sleep. No longer struggling to breathe, his face showed a peace that I had not seen in months. The long goodbye was over. God had granted my last prayer from the old hymn, “And give him peace.”

~Jean Webb

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