The Gift of Witness
By Barbara Ann Allan
“Adversity does not build character; it reveals it.” True but when a loved one is critically ill, it doesn’t matter whether you are a spectator close to the fray or you are watching the carnage from nosebleed seats, you are given an opportunity for immense personal growth. You simply cannot witness the depths of pain and suffering this indifferent world is capable of without being given the chance to become a more compassionate human being.
And that, I suspect is the true gift the dying bestow on us. Perhaps that is why many of our loved ones do not “go gently into this good night,” even when family secretly long for their release. Perhaps their most unselfish act is to endure a cruel existence, not in order to build their own character but our own.
My father was seventy-nine years of age, legally blind and lying unresponsive in hospital when he passed away. Two years ago following an unsuccessful by-pass operation attempting to get some blood flow into his foot he found himself in a decision no human being should ever be asked to make. In order to ensure he was making an informed and lucid choice for his left leg to be amputated at the knee, he had to be weaned from pain medication. Family stood by helplessly observing waves of dementia and excruciating pain. For three days my dad refused to give consent and we rode the ebb and flow of conflicting emotions, one minute in raw panic at his decision, knowing that not amputating would mean a six to eight week horrific death, a death for which the doctors warned they would not be able to control the pain. The next minute we frantically searched for Kodak moments of closure. We watched in horror as his foot blackened, his toes split open, and his body became septic from gangrene. A further three-day agonizing wait occurred until Friday evening at eight pm , my father was finally wheeled once again into the O. R.
As if losing a leg wasn’t bad enough, whatever dignity a man in a hospital nightshirt was able to hold on to, was further diminished as he patiently lets nurses poke, prod, and prick their way to a well-documented chart. Failed IV attempts became the talk of the nurse’s station. Catheterization, fleet enemas, and glucose needles became constant antagonists to what little relief he received from medication dissolved in applesauce. Family members swapped conflicting roles of advocate, cheerleader and enforcer. We petitioned for warm flannel blankets to combat his chills, applauded each spoonful of tapioca pudding, and on occasion threatened to restrain him.
This journey was followed by the heart wrenching decision to have him placed in a nursing home. Despite the staff’s best intentions it was a bleak placement. Meal times had to be shared with skeletons awaiting grey dinner trays many of whom had lost their faculties. Limited conversation was provided by overworked staff who might rush by and check on the hockey score. My mother’s bedside vigil was followed up with a weekly Saturday visit home, barring a new outbreak of infection in the remaining foot, an unsuccessful fleet, or choking spell.
Frequent choking problems eventually led to his inevitable surrender. Breathless with excitement my Dad had come home with his family to celebrate his fifty-fifth wedding anniversary. Home cooking and kibitzing with his kids was not meant to be. By eleven o’clock in the morning my Dad’s throat had closed up, and he was unable to swallow his own saliva. Thirty-six hours later of spitting into an ice cream bucket ensued before he was rushed to hospital. Three weeks of bed sores, bladder infections, and continued inability to swallow followed. At this point it was made clear to family, Dad would never again be able to eat anything unless specially pureed and all liquids were to be thickened by a slimy gel like substance or the liquids would go directly into his lungs. Constant pleas requesting a sip of diet Pepsi or water tore at our hearts.
Family has always known of this man’s courage and tenacity. We have had countless opportunities to witness his depth of character, but admittedly our deepest respect came from watching him handle adversity with such strength. Years earlier my father endured a six-way by-pass, survived staff infection received in hospital and the resulting removal of his sternum. A gall bladder removal quickly followed. But without a doubt the loss of his sight was the cruelest blow of all. As a traveling salesman with an impeccable driving record, losing his licence stung. He watched heartbroken as baseball, pool, curling, golf and tennis became out of reach. Yet somehow his indomitable spirit and life force rose once again and he became a much loved and active member of the senior’s Karaoke club.
In lucid moments he was always quick to greet each grandchild by name, inquire about golf scores, and part-time jobs. His eyes would moisten, as he would tell us he was worried about Mom not sleeping. He would admonish nurses claiming they were “tossing him around the bed like a rag doll.” Yet by morning he was worried they might have taken offense and was quick to apologize. He loved telling the attendants the story of how he fell in love with his “Sweetie” and how they had been faithful to each other for fifty-five years of marriage.
This is not to suggest all of his moments were so lucid. During repeated crisis spells he would be lured into an existence not as bleak as his present circumstance. He was often unaware of the amputation. He mentioned seeing a sad dog in the room, and people “at least 150 years old.” He was busy selling gingersnap cookies to Zellers and opening new accounts. He pondered starting a career as a broadcaster. And he waited patiently with a childlike grin convinced my brother was about to return with a case of twenty-four coffee-crisp chocolate bars. As diabetes had robbed him of much of the sweetness in life, we were grateful his imaginary worlds of escape provided promise of a treat.
Though observers could easily conclude his off the wall comments were simply the product of medication, one can’t help but note the common symbolism of many of his ramblings. He obsessed over trying to get the car door open, and angered with any talk that he was safe in a hospital bed. He pleaded with you to help him Open the door . “Do you have a key… can you open the door? Can you help me open the door? This same request was repeated over and over as he stared up to the ceiling. “There is a door up there. Do you know how to open the door? Will you open the door? Can’t you help me open the door?” One night he was convinced there was some ancient writing on the wall and he wanted help to decipher it. He thought peoples’ names were listed on the wall. “Can you read the writing on the wall… he begged? Can’t you read the writing on the wall?”
This stage was followed by periods of improved health and he entered a time frame where he was angered at even the talk of death or the slightest suggestion he might never get back home. He was convinced he was going to one-day walk his green strip again with an artificial limb, and he had plans to take his entire family down the Oregon coast in a motor home when his ticket came in. His ferocious fight to stay alive initially worried family, as we wanted so badly to be comforted by knowing he was not afraid of death. In time we came to realize it wasn’t dad’s fear of death but his love of life “that kept him raging against the dying of the light.”
So how has witnessing my father’s plight provided opportunities for our growth? How can we become different people as a result of watching his suffering? For one thing this experience brought many of our individual shadows into the light. We had to accept our loss of control. No matter how we tried to script the next scene we had to surrender and acknowledge we had no idea how things would eventually unfold, nor would we have wanted to own responsibility for the outcome.
We have also had to address our priorities and make peace with our decisions. There would be no external report card given as to how well we performed supporting roles. Whether we held a bedside vigil or made occasional fleeting visits we alone would be left to make peace with our choices. We alone had to decide whether we were to release old judgments and resentments. When a loved ones life is on the line, petty incidents from the past have a chance to be forgiven. You have an opportunity to experience first hand how holding grudges and harboring bad memories ironically demands more energy that releasing old slights. “He said…She said…”gossip only serves to poison relationships. We now have an opportunity for old family patterns of communicating to be healed and changed.
In addition a spotlight was shone on our individual character flaws that have plagued us our entire lives. The high cost of worrying about what people might think can become too exhausting to maintain. It became hellish worrying whether or not my Dad’s face was clean shaven, or if visitors might have to endure the stench of soiled sheets. Nor were we are responsible if he told a nurse in the middle of the night to “stick her blood pressure test” just as we were not deserving of praise when he “slept peacefully through the night without incident” When worry reaches such frantic heights you eventually have no choice but to”let go and let God.”
“Not everything is about me,” is another painful realization. I for one had a very difficult time not allowing my dad’s response to me each visit, color my day. Not surprisingly I have been battling that weakness my whole life. I have always had to be teacher’s pet, daddy’s little girl, and momma’s favorite. Should someone not be pleased with me I am devastated. Having my dad on occasion tell me to “Be quiet”… “Go home”… or greet me with “Oh God not you…” has potently shown me the dangers of taking everything personally. Ironically not believing the world rises and sets because of me offers the very freedom I have longed for. The question is am I prepared to pay the price?
When my father initially chose to not give permission for his amputation, the strength of my faith quickly came into question. Just because I have a copy of John Edwards “Crossing Over” book on my bed stand does not mean my own fears about death did not surface. Minutes before surgery, the clichéd “if I could be in your shoes… you know I would” comments, were exposed for the empty words they are.
Acknowledging that not everyone does or should hold the same religious views can also be very disconcerting. Finding that the beliefs we hold as true, may not be shared, yet allowing our loved ones the respect and dignity to honor their own truth is easier said than done. How much easier we find it to egotistically inflict our own opinions on others rather than trust that their experiences and preferences are equally as valid.
Even seeing old patterns of looking for someone to blame or managing stress by numbing out through everything from chocolate to rye, serves to remind us we are only human. Displacing anger, and withholding emotion, may be the best we are capable of at times. Some of our natural tendencies might not be pretty, but everybody really is doing the best they can at any given moment. Perhaps a little more compassion for self and others would be the perfect prescription before we ourselves “go gently into this good night.”
Undoubtedly the gifts have been plentiful, yet clearly one of the greatest miracles of my father’s death for me was being able to see the bigger picture if only for a small window of time. It was an honor to watch my Dad take his last breath. I had always hoped that there would be some definitive sign, some palpable change or marker to signal the moment of his death. I now see the beauty in how blurred that line can appear. There is something mystical about the unbroken ebb and flow of life and death.
That mystical quality of life was heightened when I received many personal affirmations as to the miraculous. One particularly difficult day when Dad was non responsive, I prayed to God to give me a sign that his guardian angels were taking care of him and ensuring his safety during his passing. I asked to receive a “sign” in the form of a happy face symbol to comfort me. I left the hospital and decided to help my sister clean out her storage area to keep busy. Just several hours after my prayer (a prayer my sister knew nothing of) she pulled out a big yellow happy face piggy bank out from under the sump pump in her basement. The next day I told my brother about this experience only for him to minutes later hand me a napkin holder with a big yellow happy face sticker stuck on top. With over fifty napkin holders in the hospital cafeteria we sat at a table with the only one with a happy face sticker on it. As if this wasn’t enough, I experienced another gift while shopping for a pair of dress pants for my son. I took a pair of fifty-nine dollar trousers to the till. The lad selling me the pants told me he was totally puzzled but they were scanning in at $1.98 and he would have to charge me exactly that. As I sheepishly handed him the money my eyes landed on a mannequin adorned in yellow happy face boxers with a red tongue sticking out. One of my more recent memories of my Dad came days before his death when he stuck his tongue out at me as if to playfully say…” ok… I get the joke but just don’t have the energy to respond.” I could just see my Dad smiling… proud his grandson wasn’t going to have to spend a fortune getting dressed up for his funeral. This experience was followed by another synchronicity. The day before my Dad’s funeral I had an embarrassing urge to pull into a garage sale. The first item I saw was a Reader’s Digest book with the cover story entitled “Life after Death ---NEW Evidence) Next to the magazine was a crocheted train with a yellow happy face front. As I gathered these two treasure to take them to the woman at the cash table she unknowingly pointed out to me that the train had the initial T on the sticker. Ted was my father’s name. The next day as we drove to the funeral home we followed a car that proudly displayed a happy face ball with a black top hat adorning the antennae. How fitting that God chose to comfort us with a silly bright happy face symbol, because that is the one thing I think my father would tell us today if he could. Don’t worry… Be Happy. Enjoy the ride, smile, and have some fun.
There is no doubt that there is truth to the old adage that “Adversity doesn’t build character; it reveals it.” The horrific struggles and obstacles my Dad endured over the last years revealed much about his strength of character, his passion for life, and his love of family. But the true gifts were given through God’s grace to those in witness. One can only hope they will not be returned unopened.
© May, 2004, Barbara Ann Allan
God gave me work
Till my life shall end,
Till my work be done. - English Novelist, Winifred Holtby, 1898-1935.
An Irish Friendship Wish
May there always be work for your hands to do;
May your purse always hold a coin or two;
May the sun always shine on your windowpane;
May a rainbow be certain to follow each rain;
May the hand of a friend always be near you;
May God fill your heart with gladness to cheer you.
Seven sacred bodies: Transformational Affirmations
from Reiki Beyond the Usui System by Karyn K. Mitchell, N.D, Ph.D.
PHYSICAL: I honor my physical body and am sensitive to its needs.
MENTAL: Divine, positive consciousness dwells within each cell of my body.
EMOTIONAL: I allow myself to feel the reality of my existence.
SPIRITUAL: I release all concepts and patterns that are not serving my Highest Good.
COSMIC: I transcend desire and communicate through my Higher Self energy.
LIGHT: My Ki is united with all that is.
INTERDIMENSIONAL: My Ki is unlimited.