As those who have read this blog for a while know, 2011 was an intense year for me of learning about how to love someone and also let them go with as much care and grace as possible. I managed my mother's hospice care through her death in February of that year, and then, with the help of our daughter Molly, tended my husband Richard through his death in November.
Folks who work or volunteer in hospice care often say something like: "It's a privilege to be with you and your family in this journey." It's true: accompanying and/or shepherding someone through the end of their life is a privilege. It's a time of grace, when Life is often stripped down to what we value most, which is usually not things or power or status.
As our physical abilities drop away, we have the opportunity to leave behind the emotional and intellectual baggage we may have carried. Our egos get checked at the door, as it were. We may find it easier to express love, we may speak of our core values and our understanding of what mattered most in our lives. We may simply be with an ease and comfort we struggled to find in our complicated, hurried lives.
Of course, dying isn't all sweetness and light, trumpets and puffy clouds. As with the other major passage at the beginning of life, there is pain, sleeplessness, and no small amount of indignity and even fear. (For caregivers too.) Losing control is often one of our greatest fears–having to be dressed and undressed and fed, not to mention having the people we love (or relative strangers) change our diapers and wipe our butts.
Yet that's a normal part of the arc of our existence. It's both how we come into this life, and most usually, how we go out.
Now that ending part is coming up for my dad, Bob Tweit, who just turned 90 last month.
(The photo at the top of the post is a sweet one of Dad with my mom, in 2008, the year he turned 80 and mom was 77, when my brother Bill, my sister-in-law Lucy, and my youngest niece, Alice took the folks to Norway to visit our family there. My cousin Halvard Tveit told me in an email today that Mom initially said she was too tired to go on the midnight boat trip around the harbor in Trondheim, until she learned there was a possibility of seeing sea eagles. Then she decided to go, but she watched for sea eagles from a supine position with her head in Dad's lap!)
Dad on another of the adventures we planned to celebrate his 80th birthday, a trip to a wilderness yurt in the mountains on edging North Park, Colorado, near Rocky Mountain National Park. Dad and Mom hiked the whole three miles in to the yurt, and thoroughly enjoyed the days we spent there. That's Dad on the left, and my brother, Bill, on the right, relaxing on the deck of the yurt.
A week ago, Dad was diagnosed with lymphoma, cancer of the lymph system. It's a kind of cancer that is highly curable with high doses of chemo if you are young and healthy. Dad is neither–as his oncologist said, the chemo would kill him, after making him so sick he would wish he was dead–and the type of lymphoma he has is particularly aggressive.
The cancer was discovered when a lump appeared on the back of his neck while he was in the hospital. Ten days after that lump was biopsied, it has spread so much it's almost encircling the back of Dad's neck. His prognosis: two weeks to two months.
When I called Dad after he learned the grim news, I said I was sorry, and he responded in his age-slowed voice, "Everyone dies sometime." True words. But we're not all particularly thoughtful or gracious about letting go of life.
Dad's out of the hospital and in hospice care at the convalescent center at his retirement village. He's too weak to go back to his apartment in Assisted Living, so Lucy and Bill have decided to move him home to their house for the remainder of his time. I think they are saints!
My job is to consult from a distance, make sure all of his financial and legal affairs are in order, and arrange for his end-of-life wishes. Which will have me scrambling around quite a bit for the next couple of weeks. I'll have a hand in his care for ten days in late September, when I will go to Olympia to stay at Bill and Lucy's and tend Dad (and the household dogs and cats) while Lucy and Bill go to Germany to visit my middle niece, Sienna, and her family, a break that Lucy and Bill will really need by then, I suspect.
I am reminded (again) of how grateful I am to have a family that pulls together in times of crisis, and also enjoys hanging out together when it's not a crisis. We love each other, and we do our best to live that way.
A family expedition to the Beartooth Plateau last summer: Alice Tweit (holding Pepper, the Italian Grayhound), Lucy Winter (holding Sarge, also an IG), Bill Tweit, and Dad.
I am also reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson's words about capital'L' Life:
Our lives are an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn. That there is no end in nature but every end is a beginning.
Dad's headed for that combined ending and beginning. Mom's spirit is waiting for him, I suspect, and probably getting impatient. For all I know, Richard's spirit is on the lookout for Dad too.
For the rest of the Tweit clan, our job is to help Dad through this journey on to whatever's next with as much patience, care, and love as we can muster. It's his last trip with us…
On an entirely different note, the for-sale sign is up at my house. If you want to take a virtual tour, check out the photos on Zillow. The place is looking pretty darned wonderful, I think. And if you know someone who would love to buy a beautifully renovated mid-Century Modern house in northwest Wyoming, please share!