To Care for the Dying: In People or Pets - A Sacred Charge

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Last Friday, my dad and I watched the second round of the Dell-Technologies golf tournament in Austin, Texas. For all dad knew, it could have been a replay of the Bob Hope Classic from the 1950s - or a documentary about Bolsheviks harvesting wheat with a scythe.

Right after Jordan Spieth whacked his tee shot from the 9th hole, I put my hand on dad’s shoulder, leaned over the railing of his hospital bed and whispered, “You could do a lot better than that, right champ?”

It took a moment for my words to register. Lag time with everything now is the rule instead of the exception. Slowly, dad lifted his head and searched my face through half-lidded eyes and uttered his garbled reply: “I’m a champ.”

Dad’s voice trailed off as one might expect from one whose life is slowly slipping away. His eyes fell shut and - I imagined - the animated figures on the TV faded into the soft glow of a carousel night light.

My “step” mom, my sister, and I are trying to keep dad comfortable at home. His hospice nurses are extremely responsive to our urgent reports of dad’s congestive cough, thready pulse and labored breathing and patiently school us in comfort measures. Throughout this process, my family is attentive and engaged without getting sucked into dad’s death spiral. One ear tuned to dad’s needs, we are also living our lives as fully as possible under the circumstances which is the way dad would want it. His lifelong wish is for us to be fulfilled.

We want him to know that caring for him is part of that fulfillment.

There is a sacred charge in caring for one who is dying because it is a gift the dying person can never return. Adjustments to dad’s oxygen, tucking pillows alternately under dad’s left and right sides to prevent bed sores, kissing the ever-more prominent divots above his temples are among the things we choose to do for dad because of the way in which he affirmed life during his more vigorous days.

Yesterday, my wife, Susan, and our Boston terrier, Lilly, drove down to see my dad - probably for the last time. Watching Lilly romp with her cousin, Elvis, a Boston-pug mix, it was hard to to imagine that Lilly’s clock, too, will wind down one day.

When that day approaches, Susan and I will do what we can to keep our girl content: gently shift her body for comfort, reassuringly stroke her chest and hold her close to us. She can eat however much of whatever she wants when she wants. We will be highly attuned to signs of pain that have crossed a threshold beyond which quality of life is not sustainable. Lilly will let us know that it is time to say goodbye. If her body hasn’t gotten that message, we will call our “pawspice” vet to make her compassionate house call. We will cradle her and sing softly to her right up until the moment life leaves her eyes.

Someday, we will give Lilly the same gifts my family lavishes upon dad at this very moment; those most precious ones that can never be returned . . .

. . . the ones that could forever release us from our expectations of life.