Love Letters: Four goodbyes

This essay won third place in the 2019 Love Letters: What Matters Most contest, hosted by Honoring Your Wishes, a division of Iowa City Hospice. The essay prompt asked writers to reflect on themes of love, forgiveness and gratitude. Read the first-place and second-place essays.

Illustration by Jordan Sellergren

My father died 25 years ago of an illness no one in our family knew existed. He was diagnosed a few weeks before his death as having frontal lobe atrophy with motor neuron disease, a 13-syllable death sentence that had ravaged his mind and body for several months. My mother, sister, brother and I watched his unremitting deterioration, first with denial and then desperation.

He was brilliant, fit, opinionated, sometimes tender, sometimes harshly pragmatic. He’d survived the Great Depression and World War II. We put our energies into willing him to survive this. By the time I knelt beside his bed, sensing it was the last time I would see him alive and stumbling through sentence fragments about how I loved him and was proud to be his daughter, his mind was mostly gone. I still wonder if he was able to take in any of my goodbye.

As inevitable as death is, it is still, paradoxically, a surprise. “You always think you’ll get one more day,” my brother said to me as we sat side by side at the funeral home, alone with Dad’s body. Grief is universal, yet personal, and uniquely difficult to prepare for. What if those months spent frantically searching for a cure held more time for seeking acceptance, and healing?

At the time, I taught a unit on Death and Dying in my eighth-grade reading class. We vicariously examined the emotional states common in response to loss through the characters of adolescent fiction. My students learned that grief wasn’t limited to a time table or an “acceptable” set of feelings. Now, we know even more about the importance of what can be said and done before the “one more day” that everyone hopes for and no one gets!

Mom died eight years later of congestive heart failure. Ours was what would probably be called a close family, but my relationship with both Mom and Dad bore many stresses. Disagreements or attempts to broach difficult subjects seemed unwelcome and unproductive, so after a few attempts over the years, I had stopped trying.

In my mother’s last weeks, though, she initiated reconciliation. “I’m sorry I made you mad all those times,” she declared one day when it was just the two of us. Surprised, but moved, I found myself replying, “And I’m sorry I could be such a self-righteous bitch!” Hardly eloquent, our reciprocal, single-sentence efforts still opened a space large enough for forgiveness to squeeze through.

On her last day, extended family gathered knowing time was short. Lying still, eyes closed, in the hospital bed, she seemed to know she was surrounded by love, and even follow conversations. When music came on, she moved her foot a little under the covers, and my brother asked her if she wanted to dance. She loved dancing. Later, only my sister and I were present when she breathed her last. Always a person of deep faith, she lifted off the pillow at the end, arms extended as if being lifted into the beyond.

“We love you, Mom. Go with God.” Being present for that moment is a constant gratitude in my life.

The sadness of losing my parents was profound, but I felt it to be in the natural order of things. My younger brother dying three and a half years ago was not. I’m grateful for the privilege of accompanying him on every aspect of his last journey, including talking with him every day the last 15 months of his life. That’s when the love of his life died unexpectedly. For most of the 10 years prior, they, together, had been raising her three grandchildren, whose mother was mostly unavailable. Grief-fueled animosity between my brother and the kids’ mom resulted in him soon losing contact with them as well. He was inconsolable.

My sister and I and our respective families did all we could to offer support; for my part, daily calls during which he and I would sometimes rage, often cry, but frequently laugh together as well. Beneath his suffering survived a sarcastic wit and self-deprecating humor that helped us all.

Our sign-off was always, “I love you.” One day, his voice was staccato with pain. I drove him to the hospital. He had an abdominal blood clot. He was in liver failure. He was dying. Two and half weeks later he was gone. He wanted to try everything possible to survive, so we did, at the same time filling his life with what matters most as if each day were his last. Finally, one was. Being able to share those last days was an honor.

On Memorial Day last year, my husband of 46 years, 11 months and 23 days died in our home under hospice care, as was his choice. He’d courageously battled numerous health issues, beginning with a heart transplant 27 years ago. Each new challenge (countless, often painful, procedures and tests; grueling hospital stays, sobering diagnoses and potentially risky treatments) weakened him, but also revealed more of his deep love of life. He forgave the hardships thrown his way and often expressed gratitude for being alive.

In his last weeks, he met with family and friends, wrote some final thoughts, sat in his favorite chair listening to music our daughters had picked from his favorites, and offered up snippets of loving memories of our life together. The night before he died, our small faith community and visiting family gathered around our bed where he lay peacefully and prayed over him.

His death was the most personally impactful of the ones I’ve written about. Yet, the way it unfolded brings me a deep sense of peace. I found these words from him, tucked away, shortly after he passed: “The last … days of my life I feel like I have already experienced heaven surrounded by loving family members, friends … what a wonderful journey, what a wonderful life…”

Life is a mystery; its end, even more so — poignant, yes, but not without its blessings.

Bonnie Murphy is an Iowa native, retired educator and lifelong learner. She enjoys being Mom to Erin and Meredith and Grandma to Ben and Allie, as well as singing, reading, practicing mindfulness and living in the cultural abundance of the Iowa City area.

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