56: Unity in Goodbye

56: Unity in Goodbye

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Positive

Unity in Goodbye

Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love.

~George Eliot

When I learned that my story “Dry Her Tears” had been accepted for Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers, I never dreamed that one of the main characters wouldn’t see it published. Thankfully, I had given a draft copy to Lou to read before the submission deadline.

I felt so blessed when the story was accepted. It really struck me that a story is a legacy we leave to the world. I had not felt that connection on such a personal basis before. This particular story will always carry poignant memories for me. In summary, “Dry Her Tears” was about how Lou, my ex-husband, and I worked as a team to care for our twenty-three-year-old daughter after she broke both her arms and was unable to care for herself.

I am glad that my last written words about Lou reflected a caring bond not usually found among divorced couples. Interestingly enough, the story of our family in “Dry Her Tears” characterized the tone for how we would come together during the last month of Lou’s life.

It had seemed like a coincidence — as I was leaving a regular medical appointment in late September, I ran into Lou leaving the urgent care facility, where he had been seen for horrible bronchitis and laryngitis. Over the next weeks, I often wondered how he was doing.

I was therefore surprised to answer the phone one day and hear a whispered, “Take me to the hospital.” I didn’t have to ask who it was. I jumped in the car, picked up Lou at his apartment, and raced to the hospital. In the emergency room, as scans and chest X-rays were performed, I promised Lou that I would not leave him alone. The chest X-rays revealed a large mass in his throat, and he was admitted to the oncology ward.

While we anxiously awaited the results, he gave me a look as if to say, “My lifestyle has caught up to me — I think my time is almost up.” I will always remember the look of resignation in his eyes. I dreaded calling our son, Warner, who was already on his way home from Eastern Illinois to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, to tell him to come to the hospital instead of the temple.

Warner arrived just as the doctor was showing the results of the scans on a monitor. She told us that fast-growing tumors were compressing Lou’s windpipe to a fraction of its normal size. This was why he could not talk and had such difficulty breathing. An oncologist and radiologist were immediately called in.

The doctor advised me to call my daughter Dani and her husband Craig in South Carolina and ask them to come immediately. The greatest danger was that the tumor would close the airway and Lou would require intubation, meaning we would not be able to communicate.

Later that evening, Warner gravely revealed to me that when I left the room, Lou quickly wrote out his last wishes. The last whispered words Warner was ever to hear were “I’m proud of you.”

Dani and Craig threw clothes into their car and raced to Illinois. Lou’s condition deteriorated during the night. He was given emergency radiation and breathing treatments and eventually his air pathway opened a little, but he was still critical. He clearly knew what was happening.

By the next afternoon, based on more scans, a biopsy, and two surgical consults, we knew that the cancer was rapidly spreading and the mass was inoperable. Lou was alert and we understood his decision to have only palliative radiation therapy. I called his office and the staff was shocked when they heard the news. He had been at work only a few days before and they thought he had bronchitis.

We made arrangements to move Lou to a hospice floor. Miraculously, although the diagnosis did not change, Lou seemed to rally and became more alert. He communicated more often by writing and sign language. Even though he was probably in terrible pain, he used pain medication very reluctantly so that he would be able to spend more waking time with us.

Just as when we had cleared our schedules to take care of Dani years before, we now closed ranks to form a tightly knit caregiving group. Warner took temporary leave from his teaching position and Dani and Craig took family leave at their jobs.

Lou was never left alone in the hospital. We all synchronized our schedules. I was so proud and grateful for the way Warner, Craig, and Dani worked together and shared responsibility for the myriad of details that constantly arose. We made sure that our visits overlapped and that we were all present at the hospital for dinner. At first it felt strange to be there as an ex-wife, but soon the title of ex-wife and ex-husband ceased to matter. My children’s father was dying and I wanted to be there for all of them.

It had been years since we spent so much time together as a family group. It was an adjustment for me to let go of the reins and realize just how capable and grown-up my children had become. The circumstances that brought us together were undeniably sad, but what a gift we had been given to get to know each other in the intimate and close surroundings of a hospital room. How fortunate that we could let go of our past hurt in order not to lose any of the precious moments available to us.

Lou seemed to be at peace with his prognosis. For a while he was even able to eat. One night as we planned for dinner, he insisted that we go to his favorite restaurant, order what we wanted, and then bring back steak and lobster. He was not able to eat much of it, but the phrase “having a final meal” really took on a new meaning.

Lou was not a typical hospice patient and his relaxed, positive attitude, and sometimes bizarre jokes, helped all of us. Soon people from work heard that it was not depressing to visit and they stopped by often. One day Lou wrote that he thought people felt better after coming to visit him and I fully agreed.

During one of his visits the topic of writing came up with his coworkers. Lou wrote a note describing the story I had written about him and Dani, and that we were hoping it would be accepted for Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers. He was very proud of the story.

It was twenty-three days from Lou’s admission to his passing. Although we were sad to say goodbye to Lou, we were blessed to share the time together. We brought out the best in each other and ourselves as we adopted a positive attitude and forgave the past on this important family journey.

~Jean Ferratier

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