Kindness: a word thrown about to describe events like someone letting you go ahead of them in the grocery line or a co-worker bringing you a can of Dr Pepper from the vending machine at work. It also describes when others take care of you, in big and small ways, during a crisis in your life. It seems there should be a stronger word for the latter.
My father died April 10, 2011. He had cancer for many years; stopped chemotherapy the summer of 2009, and for nearly two years he made the best of his time remaining on Earth. He held his own against the growing pain from the cancer that was ravaging his bones as long as he could, until one night, he decided he’d had enough.
Within a week, he was gone. The week leading up to his death threw my family into new territory, and we were continually amazed and touched by the kindness of others, as well as the tenderness and love each of us, his wife, children and grandchildren, showed my dad.
Which is why “kindness” doesn’t even begin to describe what I witnessed the last 6 days of his life and the 52 days since his death. In the days before God mercifully took him home, my 23-year-old son became a man cut from the same cloth as his grandfather. He made the open-ended trip with me, as he was in between jobs. He sat by his grandfather’s side, he moved him in his bed, cleaned him, rearranged him, held his hand, and was a companion to my grieving mother and me.
My other two sons were able to take time off work to travel to see their grandfather, and my daughter-in-law was there, caring for her husband as he said goodbye to a man who truly believed his grandchildren to be the very best people to ever come into this world. My youngest son, 21, is most like his grandfather in his interests and tastes – when he was a little boy, he once declared that he was a “gadget boy, just like Grandpa”. My husband and daughter came that weekend; they traveled back home just a few hours before Dad died.They all helped to physically and spiritually care for their grandparents, me and my siblings.
My youngest brother lives in Florida – he arrived a few days before my dad’s death. My sister and another brother live near my parents, and the past two years they’ve taken turns with doctor’s appointments and caring for my parents. Even during that last week, they somehow continued on with their regular schedules, yet seemed to be always there with us. My sister even had knee surgery that week, but spent most of her time at our parent’s house.
I’ve always believed my family to be close; closer, maybe, than most families, as we all seem to share the same outlook on life. However, we’ve never been given the gift to show one another our deep capacity to truly love, to step up to the plate and hit a home run every time, to be the people my father believed us to be.
My dad had stories to tell about all four of us, the good, bad, funny, touching, and each story brought with it an insight into who we are and who he believed us to be. I think because my dad expected us to make the right choices, we did. Not that we didn’t make mistakes along the way, like going to parties with beer available, or minor vandalizing of the football players’ homes during high school homecoming activities, or deciding to drag race down U.S. 20 in a potential hot-rod. But our version of getting in trouble was to be expected during that era and that place. We all were smart, well-liked, and had promising futures ahead of us.
As we married, our spouses became my parents’ children as well. Each grandchild was loved and cherished equally. Three step-children came into our family as a result of two of the marriages, but they’ve never been referred to, or thought of, as anything other than our children. Even my ex-husband was still a son to my father, and he arrived at my dad’s bedside minutes after he died.
My husband and I took turns the night before my dad died, sitting with him, dozing, talking and praying. I told my husband the next morning that at one point in the night I was overcome with fury at this corporal body that would not allow his spirit to go to where he wanted to be. I kissed my dad, told his body to let him go, and assured him that his work here was done, and he would be welcomed into heaven with open arms. Matt confessed that he had said the same words as well during one of his visits that night.
My sister-in-law cared for my dad quite a bit; as an RN, she was invaluable because of her knowledge of how to physically handle a person in his condition. As the woman that she is, she was invaluable because of her love for my parents, and how she tenderly cared for them both.
My husband is relatively new to our family – we’ve been married just over four years. His grief was as great as any of ours, as his own parents have been gone for many years, and mine so completely took him into the fold. His sense of being robbed of another father is palpable, and I sometimes wonder if this has been harder on him than it has on me. I had my dad for 47 years; Matt had him for five.
My youngest brother’s wife and sons were unable to arrive until the day before the funeral. Living in Florida, it was harder for them to come up during the uncertainty of that final week. Once they arrived, our family felt complete…even though my dad was gone. There are eight grandsons and two granddaughters, and in each of these fine people I can see elements of their grandfather. My oldest nephew plans to be a police officer; he will be given my dad’s badge. All 10 of the grandkids – ages 11 to 27 – have unique personalities and interests; yet all have one thing in common: a deep, true kindness.
Agape is the word I’m looking for. Definitions usually include words such as divine, unconditional, self-sacrificing, active and thoughtful love. Active and thoughtful love. That’s what I witnessed, and felt, and gave during that sacred time of my dad’s final days in this life. He never feared death; he spoke openly about those who had gone before him, how much he missed them, how valuable those lives were. We grew up hearing about his first dog, Rusty, and just last year, my cousin found Rusty’s city tags, stored away with everything my grandmother had kept from her sons over the years.
Four days before my dad died, I was sitting with him. He sat up, looked into the distance, and snapped his fingers several times. It was the same gesture I use when I call my dogs to me. My heart is comforted to think that he saw Rusty waiting for him, and that in his final days with one foot on Earth and one already in Heaven, he knew there was a crowd eagerly awaiting his arrival, even as a crowd sadly let him go.