–By Donald Hanna
Last month, after years of fighting colon cancer, my father-in-law, Dean, passed away. As my family journeyed with him through his last days, I was struck along the way at the lessons this journey carried for us, and the growing that we did together in the process. Walking with him as he died was not an easy thing, but I think, in the end, everyone in my family considers the experience a deep blessing.
About three months before Dean died, the doctors told us that there wasn’t much more they could do. They could offer him a chemo pill that would possibly give him as much as another year, but the side effects would be miserable. This led to some conversations at home around the question, “what is living?” He chose quality of life over quantity and he entered under the care of Hospice. It is a decision that both my ten-year-old and seventeen-year-old said that they would have made.
A few weeks after Dean started in Hospice, we all loaded in the car together and headed to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Dean had been a magician his whole life, and there was an magician’s conference there that he wanted to attend. I loved to see my kids so willing to drop everything to make this last wish of his happen – even step up to make sure that it was as enjoyable as possible for him, talking with him about what he liked about the conference, listening to him critique shows, and go on about magic’s heyday and magicians from back when. My son, who is pretty shy, and who would never normally do this, volunteered to go up on stage during one of the shows. He later told us, “I did it for Papa.”
Dean and his wife moved in with us when we all returned so that we could better help with the care taking. In a short time span the kids watched the Papa they knew become frail and bed ridden. In a matter of a few weeks, he went from reading them bedtime stories to not being able to read at all. As things progressed, he became delusional, and sometimes paranoid. He would start thinking he was back at home with his mom and dad, or back in Korea, or just talk gibberish. Throughout all of this, they constantly showed him such love, making sure he had what he needed to be contented, bringing him juice or water, trying to offer him a comforting voice, or seeing if he was comfortable in his bed. They also cared for each other and the family, making meals, watching the baby, and cleaning up. When Dean hadn’t slept for three days and was constantly tying to get out of bed (which was a huge fall risk), my daughter even took a shift staying up with him in the middle of the night to talk him back into bed every five minutes so that my wife and I could get some sleep.
When Dean died we were all gathered around him. The whole family took part in washing his body, anointing him with oil, and then in a service of blessing. To me, life in Christ is about love, care, kindness, patience, peace, justness, forgiveness, and so forth. Journeying with Papa through his last days to his death taught me a lot about what it truly is to live in Christ. I’m sure it taught my kids much about this too. Throughout the dying process, we’ve each been required in our own ways to live out these qualities and in unexpected ways. And, I would add, the learning still goes on as we mourn Dean’s death, and my guess is that they will continue on, popping up at the most unexpected of times.
As I said before, this journey hasn’t been an easy one, but for all of us, my children especially, it has been a blessing. We are each thankful for Dean’s life, and the role we were able to play in making his death a good one.