If there is one thing to remember about everything that happened this past year- the diagnosis, the chemo, the doctor appointments, the sickness, the pain, the tumors, the surgery, the recovery, the cruise, the TPN, the swelling, the hospitalizations, the final end- it is this: God's hands were all over it.
All over it.
God was there with him, with us, with his doctors, with Hospice, even with the ambulance drivers that brought him out of his house for the very last time.
Not to say that there wasn't pain and crying and worry and helplessness- of course not. We all felt that. But even more strongly we all felt God's hands around us, making the path clear for us to follow, and bestowing on us the most incredible sense of peace and light.
Soon after we returned from our slice of paradise trip in April my dad started having pain in his abdomen. Thinking it was possibly due to a small infection he was fighting at his surgical site, none of us really worried too much about it. Local doctors were not able to decide if it was part of the cancer or not. Antibiotics were tried and didn't really do too much. After a few weeks it was still not getting better and the pain, in fact, was getting worse. My dad's appetite, which had not been great for over a year, began to lag again and he was having a hard time getting enough calories in.
He had a goal in mind: to make it to my brother's house in Chicago for Memorial Day weekend, where my nephew Luke was celebrating his first birthday and my niece Kate was dancing in her first recital. He made it, thank goodness, and was blessed to be part of those wonderful events. He also, however, stopped eating that weekend, taking a last bite of real food and was not able to keep it down.
When he got home we brought him back over to Worcester where his doctor was and she knew immediately what was going on: a tumor was pressing on his small intestine and keeping it from working. The small intestine didn't like this and was fighting to work, causing the pain. Eating by mouth was out of the question, so Plan B was adopted: TPN feedings. TPN is food broken down to the elemental level and pushed directly in the bloodstream. After a week in the hospital, he was home with visiting nurses, tons of medical supplies and a hefty dose of pain meds.
Emotionally, things were coming to a head for me. It was very scary to think that your parent can no longer eat and is dependent on outside sources for food. Helping my mom set up the feeding cycles with all of its intricacies was nothing short of harrowing: not only is it complicated, but it was my father we were working on. It was becoming clearer and clearer that our break from this disease was over and we were back to fighting full on. And I was not sure how much fight we had left in us.
Over the next few weeks, it became clear that the TPN was not going where it was supposed to go. His body simply couldn't handle it. He made the decision with our full support to stop the TPN and wait for God to take him. Hospice was called and put in place.
About a month later, on July 15th, he was gone. Peacefully, calmly, next to my mom.
That month was absolutely awful. School was wrapping up for my kids and I was struggling to stay somewhat on top of all the end of the year activities. I told my dear friend Carrie that I was living in a bubble and inside the bubble a voice was screaming, "My father is dying!" while outside the bubble were my kids and my husband and my house and laundry and cooking and responsibilities and field day reminders and Girl Scout wrap up parties... and they were trying to get some attention, too. But mostly they were muffled-sounding and bouncing right off of me.
My dad suffered. My mom suffered, watching him. In a way I suffered, too, of course, but felt very blessed in other ways. Blessed that I was home with my family and was able to go to my parents' house every single day and help. Blessed that we lived a half mile away and could be there in 90 seconds. Blessed that I had a spouse and friends who were holding me up.
Blessed that about three weeks before he died, I was able to write out his eulogy and give him a copy so he could read it and know how I felt.
Blessed that about two weeks before he died, God surrounded me with the greatest sense of peace and let slide all the harsh, desperate, plaintive feelings of helplessness and wanting and fighting. I was able at that point to start praying that God take my dad and heal him in heaven.
Blessed that about a week before he died, I was able to experience another miracle. I was struggling, really struggling with being sure that my dad was going to heaven. For every strong, confident statement I heard confirming the presence and promise of heaven in my head, backed up by decades of Sunday School and Bible Study and church attendance and prayer and faith, there was one little question... what if? What if there is no heaven? What if this is the end? And things were so bad for my father at that point that even being dead was a better fate than what he was living through.
But I was talking to my friend Michele, a woman of deep, loving faith, who happened to call looking to arrange a playdate for our daughters. And I shared with her my struggle for certainty and my wish, my prayer, my need to have some kind of sign, some secret message just between God and I, that would let me know that heaven was real and ready to accept my father.
She told me this: she had gone to Mass that night at a different church than she usually goes to, and the homily was all about suffering. Why do we suffer? Is God abandoning us? Why does He let this happen? And the priest gave the beautiful insight that we humans suffer on Earth to be One with Christ who suffered on the cross for us. And after that suffering, and the unity that comes with it, we are blessed with the unity of perfect healing in heaven. The suffering here leads to union in heaven.
It couldn't have been a clearer message from God directly to me: it was my secret message. It answered my questions, settled my heart and gave me peace. From that point out, I was ready.
I was blessed to feel that dozens- maybe hundreds- of decisions, both big and small, had been made with God's guidance over my lifetime to get to this place, in this moment, and to embrace it and feel it and weep with it and celebrate it.
The night my dad passed away from us, after we got the call from my mom that he was gone, Dan and I went up to the hospital. As I was crying at my dad's bedside, I immediately heard his strong, low voice over my shoulder as I held his hand. Don't be sad, he said, as clear as if he was right next to me. I am healed! I am in heaven and it is perfect. What you see is just the shell... you wouldn't cry over the empty cocoon of a butterfly. Don't be sad.
And that was such a gift. Because of course I cry and mourn and feel pain that he is gone from us. But I truly feel that he is watching us, completely healed and perfect and joyful and free. And that has given me the strength to carry on each day, to comfort my children, and to see the miracles that God bestowed upon us in this horrible, scary, desperate year.
Several days later, we had the services for my dad and they were terrifically uplifting and healing. The Holy Spirit gave me the strength to get up at the funeral (after have a full-out panic attack the night before) and read my eulogy, saying exactly what I wanted to say in exactly the way I wanted to say it: I wanted people to know that God was with us through this journey and to remember my father not the way he was since last July, but the way he was for the 65 years before that. Strong, healthy, smart, funny, protective, faithful and loving. He was a blessing and a gift to all of us.
It has been two months since I said goodbye to my dad. I am happy to say that I have been remarkably protected by God and strengthened by the Holy Spirit day after day. I am able to remember lovely memories- a treasure trove of them- and am still feeling grateful for him that his suffering is over.
He is healed, he is with us, and this journey we took was full of blessings and miracles.