I recently read the book Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs, & Communications of the Dying by Maggie Callanan and Patricia Kelley. I read some of it in airports and on airplanes over the nose of my tight-fitting N95 mask while in transit from Vermont to Oregon to spend time with my dad. I finished the book sitting next to a lake not far from his home, with a gentle breeze, St. John’s Wort & Cedar holding me. Written by two hospice workers, Final Gifts offers a gentle and honest peek into the experience of dying & provided me with my own special awareness and sensitivity to my dad’s process of moving towards Death.
When I started reading the book, I realized how little I have considered the experience of dying from the point of view of the one who is dying. For the past 6 months I’ve been focused on understanding how to cope with someone you love dying, tuning into the process of grieving and preparing for loss. Grief I am familiar with. Grief will walk with me throughout my entire life. I have no doubt that Grief and Love will both be there to lovingly ease me into death. And yet I hadn’t really thought about the act or process of dying. It’s scary to think about!
Dying does not have to be scary or traumatic for any of the people involved – the dying person, their loved ones, or their caregivers. It can be a gentle, peaceful, beautiful, loving, process, one that can live on as a final cherished memory in the hearts of those still here. There can be Grace in Death.
As I learned in Final Gifts, dying people develop a special awareness (Nearing Death Awareness) where their consciousness begins to touch the realms on the other side of Death’s passage. As they develop Nearing Death Awareness, dying people may try and share their experience. They may offer messages of what they need to find peace, worries about loved ones being okay after they’re gone, and even offer insight as to when they will die. These messages are often vague and labeled as nonsense, and it may be concluded that the dying person is confused or hallucinating. But the stories in Final Gifts illustrate that when loved ones and caretakers pay attention to these sometimes cryptic messages, they help make room for Grace to accompany Death.
Before seeing my dad I made a silent vow to pay attention. To be fully present. To notice my dad’s attention, his energy levels, and – especially- the words he chooses to write as he cannot speak.
My backyard growing up was a source of nourishment in many ways. We had lemons coming out of our ears nearly year-round. Summer was marked by the short but glorious time when the ancient plum tree would offer it’s bounty and stain the ground and my lips bright red. And we always had a garden.
My dad’s favorite thing to grow is tomatoes. Big, plump, juicy tomatoes. Doesn’t matter the variety, as long as they’re big and delicious! At his home in Oregon my dad has a ridiculously abundant plum tree in the front yard and a garden in the back. Next to the garden he has an experiment in growing hydroponic tomatoes and – holy tomato plant! – they are flourishing! They are majestic, bushy, vibrant, and already have big green fruits with more on the way. My dad is very proud of it and showed it off the first day we visited.
Lately, mornings are spent in my dad’s backyard sipping coffee with lots of distance and a whiteboard for communication. My dad and his wife are selling their 2-story house and plan to move to an apartment closer to the VA hospital, one that will be safer as his mobility declines. On this morning in particular, we had been talking about what they’re looking for in an apartment, giggling at lofty requests for an in-apartment sauna and joking that they could sell their house for at least $5k more if we include his thriving hydroponic tomatoes as part of the deal!
My sister, brother-in-law and I have been practicing pausing verbal conversation when dad picks up his dry erase marker to allow him time to participate. And sometimes there is just silence. Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say to your dying father, and so we just sit together. In a moment of such silence, as his wife was inside preparing for a house showing, I noticed my dad gazing off into space with a far-away look. With an inhale, he picked up his marker and wrote a few words on the white board:
With all the talk of apartment hunting, it would be easy to assume he meant “here” as in their house in Sweet Home. It’s easy to assume that he was thinking they wouldn’t find an apartment with a patio or balcony where he could bring his hydroponic tomatoes and joyfully watch them turn red & juicy. Perhaps that is simply what was on his mind.
But what if he is letting us know that his time is coming?
What if my dad is trying to communicate to us, in a way so connected to his passion of gardening, that he will reach the end of his life before the still-green tomatoes reach their full ripeness? What if Death prefers green tomatoes?
Over the years I’ve learned a lot about what I don’t want and what I won’t stand for. These experiences have helped me identify what I do want in powerful ways. Without the don’ts the dos aren’t always so clear. So let me tell you what I don’t hope and pray for.
I don’t hope or pray that that my dad will live long after the last tomato has ripened on the vines, or that he will be here to grow another season of big juicy fruits! No. I don’t pray for this because I know he will not see another season of tomatoes. I don’t pray for this because 6 months ago my gut told me he will be gone from this world before my birthday in November. I don’t pray for this because of the nature of bulbar ALS and because of the message my dad gave us yesterday.
What I DO hope and pray for is that my dad will die at the right time – for him. I pray that he will die with a smile on his face and peace in his heart. I pray that as he slips into the other realms, he feels held in love on both sides of Death’s passageway. I pray that my dad will continue to move towards Death with Grace.
These hopes, these prayers rest comfortably in my womb, my belly, my heart. I feel them anchored into my being, anchored by a deep trust in my dad’s process of dying unfolding exactly as it is meant to. My final hope and prayer is that when my dad does step through the passageway of death, he will be greeted by a field of big, juicy, perfectly ripe tomatoes.