After a year of battling an aggressive form of cancer, every complication and side effect of intense chemotherapy and radiation, as well as the spread of the cancer to multiple sites, landing in the intensive care unit on life support came as no surprise to Harry’s wife and children. The year had given them time to grasp the reality of possibly losing their father. While Harry lay in the ICU bed with multiple IV lines through which life-saving medications were infusing, each of his children were making arrangements to fly home to see their Dad, not knowing if this would be the last time, or just another scare during the journey of watching their father battle cancer.
One by one each of Harry’s sons and daughters came to see him. When all had arrived, they met together to discuss the plan. They leaned on one another. They encouraged and comforted each other. There were many tears. This had been a difficult year for them. Not only was their father sick, but multiple other family members had been experiencing severe health problems. It was evident in the first 5 minutes of meeting them, the past year’s events had clearly grown them closer as a family.
Eventually, all of the family members agreed to support their mother, Harry’s wife, in the difficult decision to stop life support, take her husband off of the ventilator, and pray for the best. They were well aware of the fact that he would likely only live a couple more days. His lungs were in very bad condition. And Harry was awake, and also well aware of what was happening.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Harry did very well after having the breathing tube removed. He was weak at first, only able to whisper. But by the following day, he was doing great, his vital signs were perfect, and he was able to speak well enough to insist that his team was going to win the Superbowl the following day. But just to get a smile from Harry, I insisted MY team, the 49-ers, was going to win. And we shared that rivalry for the next 24 hours.
Harry was very thirsty and I was continuously swabbing his mouth with sponges for moisture. But Harry really wanted a drink of water. After compromising on trying some crushed ice, he unfortunately choked on it, and I was forced to explain to him, that he would likely no longer be able to eat, and that the ice had actually “gone down the wrong pipe.” Harry just looked at me, smiled, and said, “Well, at least I got another day with my family.” Then he squeezed my hand and told me that I was wrong about the 49-ers, and that HIS team was going to win the Superbowl, and we then shared a little chuckle together.
Not being able to provide even ice chips for Harry was difficult for me. I knew he was going to die soon. He knew he was going to die soon. There was nothing I could do for him, except laugh about the Superbowl, and hold his hand. I asked him if there was anything I could do for him, anything I could get for him, and I suggested a newspaper, or turning on the television to watch the Red Wings game. He squeezed my hand really tight, smiled a half-cocked smile and said to me, “Rita, do you know what I really would like to have?” “What?” I asked. He then looked me square in the face and said, “I would really just like to see my sons and daughters, and to have a box of chicklets.”
Not long after that, Harry’s wife and all of his grown children would arrive, some with a few of Harry’s grandchildren, each of whom insisted that he was hands down, the best grandpa on planet Earth. I made my way in and out of the room several times to care for Harry. He sat there, looking completely satisfied surrounded by his wife, sons, daughters, and grandchildren. He didn’t have to say a word. I listened to the conversations his children were having. Two of the daughters were laughing remembering the time their dad, Harry, had taught them how to waltz in their living room when they were young. His sons laughed about how fun and exciting it was to share with the dad when they were about to become fathers. Harry’s wife shared how they had met, and that they had been married for 48 years. Grandsons talked about how cool it was that their grandpa cheered for them in the stands at their hockey games. Both daughters teared up as they remembered sharing with their dad that they were pregnant……….. each of them with twins!
Harry just sat back and took it all in. He listened to his children remember fondly their childhood. He listened sweetly as his wife re-told the story of how they met, fell in love, and eventually married. Harry chuckled as his oldest son told a joke. I drove home that night knowing Harry had gotten his wish. He may not have been able to enjoy a box of Chicklets, but he was surrounded by his wife, his sons, and his daughters, and enjoying his family probably a little bit differently than he had in the past.
This morning as I greeted Harry in his room, things were different. He was struggling to breathe, but was very calm and peaceful. It was clear that he was actively dying. I held his hand, and I told him not to be afraid. I called his wife to come right away, and promised to stay with him until she arrived. I asked him if he was afraid. He smiled and said, “No.” The chaplain had been there the day before, and the three of us had enjoyed a conversation about the Lord, and I knew that Harry knew Him.” I truly believe that was why Harry had no fear of dying. I reassured him that his family would be okay, and that he had done a marvelous job raising good, successful, and loving children. But by now, Harry was unable to respond. He took his last breath, closed his eyes, and was gone. It was very, very peaceful and quiet.
Afterwards, I recalled conversations I had over the past few days. I’d had a conversation with a friend about saving for retirement, and worried if I’d saved enough. I’d told a friend I had a coupon for $20 off of a Vera Bradley bag, and couldn’t wait to purchase one in the latest floral pattern. I searched on the internet for fun vacations to take as I celebrate my 50th birthday this year. I spent two hours creating a new budget for the year. I’d even spent an hour cleaning the inside of my 5-month-old car.
But after over-hearing conversations about waltzes daughters learned from their dads, I remembered MY dad teaching me how to waltz in my living room. I remembered MY dad attending football and baseball games for my children. I remembered sweet, simple memories of my own childhood growing up with MY parents. Soon, my retirement account lost its importance. My worn out, but still functional Vera Bradley bag seemed just right, and the two hours I had spent working on a budget became two hours I could have spent with my family.
As I remember all of the people, whose hands I have had the privilege of holding as they leave this world, I cannot recall anyone asking to have one last look at their bank statement, or a drive past their half million dollar home. I’ve never heard anyone want to discuss their credentials, their “stuff” or any other of the myriad of things we find important on a day-to-day basis. No, I listen to dying people ask for things like, “Sons, daughters, and chicklets.”
As I drove home tonight remembering Harry and his family, I just thought to myself, “Well, Harry may have missed his last Superbowl game, but I bet he’s got all the chicklets he wants now.”
Sometimes, I think I have no clue what really matters in life. I think I “miss it” often. But now and then, God gives us all a little glimpse into what really matters. It really IS the simple things, like waltzes, grandchildren, sons, daughters, and chicklets.
Rest in peace, my dear friend, Harry….. See you on the porch!
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