February 3, 2015

The best way to say your final goodbyes

     Twice, I’ve lifted the same prayer.  
     In 1998, my father was critically ill.  Sixteen years later, my mother’s life was slipping way.  Each
time, I prayed: “Lord, we would love a miracle.  We aren’t ready to say goodbye. But if that is not in your will, please, Lord, don’t let our loved one suffer long.”
     With Big Dink, the long goodbye stretched over the summer into September in our home. We never stopped praying for the miracle, but the time came to realize that there are things worse than death.  Bone cancer is unmerciful with its excruciating torture.  In the final days, we knew heaven was calling. 
     Every family has signature stories, repeated over and over.  I wanted my dad to hear them one more time.  Bill Staten, an editorial cartoonist for our newspapers, came to our house.  Sitting in the circle of my mother, two sisters and me, Bill listened to us tell those never-to-be-forgotten memories.  One by one, Bill sketched 12 illustrations.
     Later that afternoon, I took the drawings downstairs and climbed into my dad’s hospital bed.  Raising his head with pillows, so he could see, I showed him the cartoons and retold the stories connected to each one.  His voice was weak—a raspy whisper—but he laughed that laugh I had heard for 50 years.  From time to time, he’d squeeze my hand.  Neither of us could hold back the tears, but we basked in priceless recollections.
     Two days later, our entire family was standing around his bed, holding his hands and onto each other.  The last thing he said was “I love you.”  The last thing he heard was a chorus of “We love you.”   Weep we did. But with joy, we were determined to clutch every precious memory and celebrate his remarkable life of 76 years.  I don’t know how you can get much better than that.  September 21, 1998, seems like a hundred years ago.  Yet it seems like yesterday.
     All of a sudden it was November 2014.  Our mother, Margie, was fading in Athens, 210 miles from home.  She was never in danger of rusting out, but it was obvious that she was wearing out.   Over her 90 years—sponge-like—she had soaked up so much of life’s goodness.
     Seven years earlier, she endured chemotherapy and radiation to combat the cancer cells gnawing on her petite body.  She had always been fussy about her hair, so she scolded the just-in-case-I-lose-my-hair wig in her dressing room.  “I won’t be wearing you,” she sassed.  And she didn’t.  That was Margie—perky and positive.

     Still, the time had come to pray: “Lord, we would love a miracle.  We aren’t ready to say goodbye.  But if that is not in your will, please, Lord, don’t let our loved one suffer long.”  Sisters Sandy and Sheila and I huddled and decided: “It’s time to move Mama back home.  When she goes to heaven, we want it to be from a happy place.”
     During the Thanksgiving week, I was the advance party.  Old friends flung open their hearts and doors to welcome Mother home.  Almost like magic, Margie was in Jesup.  Hospice was wonderful, but the steady flow of visitors was the most powerful medicine possible.  Her final 30 days were bathed in exchanges of love and gratitude.
     On Saturday, December 27th, we were around her bed.  The last thing she said was “I love you.”
     The last thing she heard was “We love you.”  After sleeping for two days, as we held her hands, Margie went to heaven to hug Big Dink, again.  On New Year’s Eve, we celebrated Margie NeSmith’s energetic and giving life.
     I will forever treasure holding my father’s and mother’s hands, as they left us, and hearing their last words: “I love you.”  Does it get any better than that?
     I don’t think so.

     Thank you, Lord.