I never learned too many details about my father-in-law's life. I was basically just told he didn't have an easy early life, but that he was always "the dependable" one. But I am grateful for the years that I did know him and I really miss him. I'm glad to know that our separation is only temporary.
Bob had been dying for about 10 years ever since he had a heart attack, open heart surgery, and became diabetic. The last three years of his life were the worst as he struggled with more and more "bad" days than "good" ones. He didn't feel well and he was often "ouchy". A quiet man by nature, he became even more so. He became less and less able to give anything of himself, and more and more critical of just about everything: his food, his Christmas gifts, whatever.
Fortunately for me, I felt accepted by him from the early days, when it seemed the offer of bribes for me to marry his son were never-ending. That became a life-long family laughing matter. But somehow I did feel his sincerity. He looked out for me like a father in those early days--listening to the sounds of my 1972 VW bug and fixing whatever was needed. We sort of "clicked" from the beginning, and it was an easy relationship.
One of the highlights of the early days was that Bob had the confidence in me to teach me how to water ski. I was in my mid 20's at the time. This was something way outside of my comfort zone. But he made it really easy. The pleasure he got from teaching people how to "get out of the water" was evident, and one of his many quiet ways of giving of himself.
I'm sure there were many times over the next 30 years when there was some disapproval, but I always knew he basically respected me. Maybe he was just glad his son was my problem now! But I can only think of two times he hurt my feelings in all those years. For a man who was notorious for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, that seems pretty miraculous. Often times during our visits over the years, while my husband and my mother-in-law would engage in what you might call "aggressive fellowship" about politics or religion, Bob and I would sit quietly and playfully roll our eyes at each other.
I was always flattered that he liked my pumpkin pies, which I make every Thanksgiving. I always sent an extra pie home with him and I knew he really appreciated that little thoughtfulness. I always felt this very old-school man gave me credit for being "domesticated." Though I can't recall any really deep and meaningful discussions we ever had, our relationship was good and I think we met each other on a very practical level, with a mutual, if unspoken, respect. I was flattered, for example, when after he got sick he asked me once to cut his hair.
I think I saw my father-in-law "come out" a little when our older son traveled for a year with a Christian music ministry. The group frequently traveled through our area, and Papa was always donating boxes of pastries to the cause. The man who wasn't prone to wander very far from his retirement chair became interested in attending the local concerts.
I will never forget one of the last Christmases we had together. As the family was gathered around, this man of few words quite unexpectedly announced that he had something to say. He proceeded to apologize for the way he had acted the previous Christmas when he was not feeling well and was quite cranky. It was the only time I ever heard the words "I'm sorry" come from his mouth. But I saw him in a new light that day.
Bob's 80th birthday came while he was in and out of the hospital that last month of his life. I remember I made him a card that said "80 isn't old if you're a tree". He chuckled, but barely. He despised being in the hospital, losing his freedom and his dignity.
By the time he got to that last week, we knew the time was short and so did he. My husband took the week off from work. My mother-in-law spent the days at the hospital and we stayed the nights. I felt strongly that no one in his situation should have to be "alone". It was a bitter-sweet time of watching and waiting, praying, crying, and coming to grips with the reality that we were losing him. We never told my mother-in-law that one night a nurse came in and suggested we agree to a drug to help his breathing, but could accelerate the shutting down of his kidneys. She explained it is a drug that is only given "near the end" and would make it easier on him than drowning from the fluid build up in his lungs.
During those final nights together, he rarely spoke, but he did allow me to moisten his mouth with wet sponges, and put a cool wet cloth on his forehead. I don't really remember all I said to him, but I remember it was right and it was enough. I remember telling him what great care my mother-in-law had given him. I remember asking him if he ever thought he'd live to be 80. I remember we prayed over him.
My husband cried a lot during those final nights, for what was, and for what wasn't. Of all things, a hospital cleaning lady came and prayed with us. The final night of our watch was Good Friday. Bob had been moved to a lovely private room. My husband and I slept off and on in chairs in the darkened room with him. At one point, through the shadows, I saw him slightly lift his head and he looked directly at us, as if to say "why are you still here?" I was haunted by whether or not he was annoyed, but we refused to leave him alone. I think he would have gone that night if we hadn't been there. But it wasn't quite time.
On Saturday, my mother-in-law was with him all day, then on Saturday night we and our kids came to say our last goodbyes. I don't remember what all was said, but it was right and it was enough. Mom Stager was very tired and desperately wanted us all to leave with her, so we did. She returned to the hospital early the next morning alone and held his hand while he passed, and thus ended a 59 year marriage. It was Easter morning. How appropriate.
For my part, I came away with a deep sense of gratitude for the privilege of our spending that last week of nights with him. I know I said everything I needed to say, and many people don't have that opportunity. I've never had more of a deep sense of satisfaction and peace for anything I've ever done. God was most definitely present, showing His grace.
And so we lost the first of our four parents. It was a foretelling of things to come that I could barely think about. But the sweetness of God's presence with us was a profound reality, and I knew that memory would carry us through more transitions.*
*As it turned out, I lost my own father three years later to the day. We still have both of our mothers, who are in their 80's. They live in the same seniors condo building only a few miles away from us.