Mar 8, 2010

On saying goodbye...and a few other memories

Today I remember my father-in-law on what would have been his 85th birthday. Harold Robert Stager, who we called "Bob" or "Papa", was a member of The Greatest Generation, and served his country during WWII while in the Navy aboard the USS Enterprise and survived a kamikaze attack.

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.


janet said...

Jacquelyn..beautiful brought back so many memories of my sisters passing. Some good and some very sad, but that is life, isn't it? I was lucky to be with my sister till the end and she passed in my arms. It is not something I will ever forget nor will that memory ever fade. It is good that you were able to say goodbye as many people never do and that often is very hard to live with. Thank you again for a thoughtful post.
your friend,

Jess said...

Oh Jacque,
Such bitter sweet memories! What an honor for a man who means so much to you. Thank you for sharing and for praying for Brian's family.
Love you.

Wanda said...

Beautiful post of a universal truth, Jacquelyn...the pain of our parent's passing. Your thoughts and rememberances are similar to mine of my father-in-law. With my own parents, I was with them both at their passing, along with other family members gathered around the bed. I find comfort, in being with them, having had my mother pass while holding her.
Appreciated the loving memories of your father-in-law.

Rose said...

Jacque, this was a lovely tribute to your FIL. It reminded me of those last days with my father. They are bittersweet. My mom is gone too, she died when I was in my 30's so it has been a while and she died in her sleep at the age of 55. Bad heart. So there was no getting to say goodbye like I was able to do with my dad.
Thank you for sharing this precious moment you had with your FIL. It so touched my heart reading it. HUGS!

Jackie said...

Beautiful post, Jacquelyn! Bittersweet memories for sure.

I dreamed of my dad just last night....He's been in Heaven twenty years how time rushes by.

My mom will be 91 next week and her health has been declining over the last several weeks. I'm spending much of my time now with her at the assisted living. So difficult to walk this journey, but His Grace is sufficient and I have the immeasurable comfort that upon her last breath here, she will step over into the arms of Jesus.

Have a wonderful week!

Sweet Blessings!

Patrina said...

Touching story! Bless you for your compassion and your ability to look both inwardly and outwardly. It seems to give you balance. Thankfully, the Lord has a way of balancing us when we feel out of balance. I'm glad to have found you in my neighborhood today - I saw your comment over at jackie's place.

I am 24/7 caregiver for my 83 year old father. It is mostly trying times. No one seems to write about this snadwich generation of caring for elderly parents. It is nice to see that someone is addressing this specific season of life.

God bless you for caring
Patrina <")>><
His watchman on the wall

Rebecca said...

What a meaning-full account of your relationship with your father-in-law! I know there was a lot of living between the lines, too.

My father-in-law has been gone for many years now. I didn't know him well (having met my husband in college and then living at a distance, I only was around him 2-4 times a year....) I'm not sure how my reflections would read if I were to write them.

It was good to read this and appreciate the time I have with our 3 remaining parents.

Jacquelyn said...

I thank you one and all for these comments and for sharing some of your thoughts too. These transitions are never easy, are they? But they do serve to remind us that life is fleeting and to make the most of the relationships we have while we have them. Love to you all!

Nellie's Cozy place said...

Hi jacquelyn,
I can't believe what I did. I meant to come over and leave comments on your blog and instead typed it on mine. I have never done that before! Sorry, but it is too long and I am too lazy to retype it all, so would you go over and look for it, it is right after your comment.
Thanks, it might help you, not sure. Have a great weekend,
Blessings, Nellie

Crown of Beauty said...

Hi Jaacquelyn, I read every word of this post, at some points misty eyed over the beautiful expression of your love and admiration for Bob. What a great opportunity God gave you, to know your father in law in a way that others didn't. You must surely be missing him.

This is a heart-moving tribute to a great man. I found myself looking forward to meeting him someday in heaven.

Thank you for sharing your heart so beautifully on this post. God gave you a good opportunity to be with him in his last days. I like to think that it had a healing effect on all of you who stood by him during his last hours. A sense of closure, among other things, is what it gave you. Like seeing off someone at the airport!

Thank you too for visiting my blogplace. I appreciate your comments.

See you again one of these days.


Shirl said...

You are so blessed to have had two such wonderful men in your life! They both sound delightful!