When my father passed away, my hand rested in his palm. During his last breath, he raised his palm upward toward heaven, lifting my hand with a strength that could only come from God. Then he stopped breathing. It was a gift of the dying.
Perhaps a week before my mother died, something caught her attention, her eyes opened wide, and she exclaimed, “It is so beautiful.” I know that she saw heaven because her next utterance was the doxology, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow; praise him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly host; praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” This, too, was a gift of the dying.
On March 4, 2017, I was finally able to admit that my sweet husband, Thurston, had not an incurable disease but a terminal one. I shed deep and sorrowful tears that day with the realization that I would lose him sooner than later. He had been diagnosed with a disease called Multiple System Atrophy, a rare disease for which the prognosis is dire and uncertain.
Later that day, he fell asleep, as he often did during the last six months of his life. Quietly and with great reverence for the comfort of our Lord, I listened as he sang in his sleep the ages-old hymn, “Amazing Grace.” It was my first gift of his dying, and there were more to come.
My mother was a nurse, a profession I admired for her but never desired for myself. Thurston’s illness and my mother’s ongoing encouragement through her spirit, however, created a nurse out of me. To be truthful, I relished the role – to be able to take care of my husband and to also love him as I had never loved him before. There are aspects of caring for a dying patient that are not pleasant, but Mama encouraged me to take them on with dignity and love. I did things I never imagined I could do. Another gift of the dying.
Thurston had two rare diseases in his lifetime. Breast Cancer and Multiple System Atrophy. Though he had brief moments of grief and acceptance, he finally decided that he had cancer but that cancer did not have him. He used his life to help and influence others, living 34 years cancer-free.
The Multiple System Atrophy was an entirely different story. It is not curable and always ends in death; even so, he rarely complained. He woke up most mornings saying, “I feel pretty good today.” After breakfast, he was asleep within 30 minutes, having chased down his breakfast with a Popsicle.
“This is some trip,” he said one day. I replied, “Yes, but it is a trip and we are on it together.” We loved travelling and enjoyed many wonderful adventures in our younger days. Our final trip - his trip to eternal life – was a gift of the dying, allowing me to accompany him as far as I could.
Never one to clean out – his clothes or his office (a no-touch zone) – he requested both. “Let’s go through my closet” and later, “Will you clean out my office?” He knew how much would await me so he helped with a spirit willing to begin to say goodbye to this earthly life.
Another gift of the dying.
In his final days of consciousness, he repeatedly told our daughter, Laura, and me that he loved us. Finally, the words that mean everything: “I am ready to go home.”
He died early on Wednesday morning, Aug. 2, and my hand was on his heart. Something woke me. It was his final gift of dying, that he would leave me with the memory of my hand on his heart as he left this life for an eternal one. And that he died in his sleep.
The gifts are there, and I am grateful that God granted me the vision to see them.
Rest well, sweet Thurston.