Around 1 p.m. last Sunday, the hospice nurse told my assembled family that we might want to gather at my father’s bedside.
I had noticed earlier that his breathing had changed, and I wondered if that was cause for concern. It was.
The nurse, who was very attentive, said that when dying patients begin to breath like a fish – in little puffs – the end is near.
And so we gathered – his two surviving sons and four of his grandchildren.
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To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be there at the end. But as I watched my father’s labored breathing through teary eyes, I was OK with where I was.
We were at my father’s bedside for just a few minutes, but in that time, I found myself oddly conflicted. I could not decide if I wanted my dad to fight death, to draw another breath, or to let go, to not breathe again.
From any objective viewpoint, I should have felt no conflict. For six weeks, I had watched my father waste away, the weight loss from week to week shocking, the suffering increasingly obvious in the expression on his face. I should have been OK with my dad letting go, choosing to quit a fight that he was obviously going to lose, that he never had a chance of winning.
But part of me wanted him to keep breathing, partly because he was my father but also because I didn’t want him to give in to such a cruel, unforgiving killer as cancer. On Sept. 23, my dad went to the doctor complaining of nausea; seven weeks later he was gone.
Once diagnosed, terminal cancer doesn’t mind showing its victims its playbook – literally; in fact, the hospice people hand the book out. It’s called “Gone From My Sight;” it’s subtitled “The Dying Experience.”
I didn’t read it, but family members did, so they were familiar with withdrawal; loss of appetite; disorientation; changes in blood pressure, heartbeat, skin color and breathing. In the final days and hours, according to the book, families can expect their loved ones to experience a surge in energy, restlessness, purplish blotches on the hands and feet.
This term isn’t in the book, but the nurse used it, and I looked it up after my dad entered the stage: it’s called terminal agitation. Here’s how the website hospicepatients.org described it:
“Patients may be too weak to walk or stand, but they insist on getting up from the bed to the chair, or from the chair back to the bed. Whatever position they are in, they complain they are not comfortable and demand to change positions, even if pain is well managed. They may yell out using uncharacteristic language, sometimes angrily accusing others around them. They appear extremely agitated and may not be objective about their own condition. They may be hallucinating, having psychotic episodes and be totally ‘out of control.’ At these times, the patient’s safety is seriously threatened.
I didn’t see the terminal agitation, but my brother and sister-in-law did. Here’s what my sister-in-law said in a text: “He has picked at the sheets, messed with oxygen and thrown stuff from the table to the floor.” And then it got crazier, with my brother wrestling my father to keep him in his and my father raising his fists and shaking them at my brother.
My sister-in-law said she could see the fear in my father’s eyes; she thinks maybe he was afraid to stay in his bed, afraid to sleep for fear he would not wake up. She added: “He’s so exhausted he’ll be snoring and moving at the same time.”
Please pray for a cure
Many visits to my father, both in the hospital and at home, ended with people praying at his bedside. Some were preachers; others were fellow church members I have known all of my life.
They prayed for healing for my father and strength for his family. I am not a religious person, but I appreciated their words.
And now I have a request for my friends with faith: Please pray that the search for a cure for cancer will soon bear fruit. This year, I have lost two parents to cancer. Please pray that no one else will have to lose two parents before we find a cure.
And for both my friends with faith and those without, that research could use not only prayers but funding. So give what you can; the American Cancer Society accepts donations online at https://donate.cancer.org/
Scott Bolejack is editor of the Smithfield Herald and the Clayton News-Star.