Miracles Revealed…in the Dying

Many know that Life is a series of learning processes. The speed at which we learn life’s lessons is determined by our willingness to admit that we don’t already know everything. Which may explain why the teen years are so difficult – insert smirk. I want to recapture and reinforce what I learned from the losses of four of the most important people in my life. To encourage and remind. Perhaps to teach. To say thank you, in my soul and in public, for the best life lessons learned over a span of 19 years. Sometimes, the hardest learning we do is about faith. Even harder – faith in a God who still works miracles.

Starting at age 26, I began to learn. Real, shut-my-mouth-long-enough-to-listen learning. Difficult for me to do. The hinges on my mouth were fastened altogether too loosely. Actually, that is untrue. I just tend to forget that hinges have a dual purpose of function: open and shut.

Sept 22, 1986:  A never-to-be-forgotten phone call in the middle of the night. My mother barely can speak without gut-wrenching crying breaking through. My youngest sister has been killed in a motorcycle accident several hours earlier and they think her date may have been drunk.

Three short months earlier, Michelle had visited my two young sons and me in our apartment, in Saginaw. She came to say goodbye. She was going to move in with our mother, in Florida, for a while and try to start life over again. The barely 20-year-old wild child was ready to begin growing up. Immediately, I wondered if this was a good idea but I did not discourage it. Already, she had spent over a year in Florida, previously, when she had left school at 16 to go off with an older boyfriend. She come back to Michigan, eventually breaking up with the boyfriend, having another, and then that relationship would end, as well. There were rumors of drug and alcohol abuse. She was listless and stubborn. Inexplicably, while telling me the reasons she wanted to try to mend the maternal relationship and wipe the slate clean, she said, “I don’t know why, Rob, but I just have the feeling that something terrible is going to happen to Mom.” I gave her a hug before she left and asked her to please write to me and stay in touch.

Back to the night of the phone call, there was no more sleep for me, afterward. I cried and tried to grasp what had just happened. My brain was in shock. I remember trying to muffle my crying so as to not awaken my two sons, who now would be without an aunt who used to play with them and buy them lots of candy (no permission, first).

One more shock was to come from my sister, however unintentional. Two days after the phone call, I received a hand-written letter from her, in the mail. Inside, she told about finding it difficult to adjust, not just to Mom, but to Mom’s fiance. She was tired of working go-nowhere jobs and was going to find a community college in which to enroll and begin to find a career. At the end of the letter, she mentioned meeting a young man and she was going out with him when she finished her shift. At her funeral, I told my sisters about her premonition. Yet, it wasn’t Mom; it was herself.

My Michelle Lessons:  It never is too late to wipe that slate clean – while we yet breathe. If that beautiful Holy Spirit whispers, “No more self-destruction. You are too valuable to God,” then we would do best to heed that still, small voice. So much better to appreciate that loving small voice, than to suffer when the Destroyer roars at us. Her last lesson was that God can, and does, impress some minds with instructions to “Go. Now is the time. Do not delay any longer.”

Early May, 1987:  I called my Mom’s phone number and her fiance answered. He said Mom wasn’t home. I asked when he expected her to be back. There was a long, still pause. I repeated the question. The hesitant, eventual answer was, “I’m not sure.” I laughed and asked how long that shopping expedition was planned to last? Backed into a corner, Wayne admitted that he could not know, for sure, because she was in the hospital. She had not wanted us to know anything about it until they had a diagnosis. Mom had been having pain in her back and legs, which she attributed to growing older (ripe old age of 45) or arthritis. When she noticed instability and difficulty in walking, one morning, she finally decided that it might be a good idea to get a professional opinion. She had been to a chiropractor a few times, so she started there. He took X-rays and told her to make an appointment to see her doctor. After a week in the hospital, on Mother’s Day, she was informed of the diagnosis of advanced leukemia. The oncologist said that the odds of her long-term survival were not good. Half of her bone marrow was depleted. They felt she had lived with leukemia for approximately a year before being diagnosed. A year earlier, she had laid her daughter to rest. With the stated odds being perhaps 60/40, with intervention, Mom was hesitant to go through all that bother. She rather put the doctor on the spot and asked why she should, since she could not have even a 50/50 chance. He persuaded her to try because in treating her, they might learn something that could help her grandchildren, should they ever need it. That was enough justification for her.

Mom went through a first round of chemotherapy, before earning permission to return to her home. While in the hospital, she was “loaded” with morphine to try to control the severe pain. Under that influence, she said cruel things she did not mean, nor could recollect, afterward. She went from being the Dragon Lady to behaving as a toddler; using baby talk and asking for Mama. This was so hard to see happening.

After a couple of weeks and then being allowed to return home, she woke up from a nap and proceeded to tell us about having a conversation with Ronnie and Nancy (then President and Mrs. Reagan) about people like her, who didn’t have health insurance. Those pain medications were very creative. She wanted to die at home, as the oncologist had informed her that she was terminal and that it could be anywhere from three days to three years. She was home for not quite two weeks. She had paid for our airline tickets so all of her children could be there with her. We were there for 17 days. She could not bear to stand, sit, or lie for very long without experiencing pain and discomfort. Times when she could sleep were her only respite. We talked and laughed and listened and wept. The pain grew worse. One morning, she came out of her bedroom and told us she had asked God’s forgiveness of her sins. She admitted to knowing better in many situations and she did not understand why she waited so long to come to God. It was music to our ears.

An uncle had come to stay with us and to try to counsel us and bolster our devastated spirits. We confided in him that we thought Mom should go back to the hospital for better pain relief. The pills, though strong, did not seem to be doing much, any longer. Hospice would not come into the home unless someone always was going to be there with her when they came. None of us lived there, other than her fiance, who would have to continue working in order to provide for them. Finally, when our uncle pointed out that she was not achieving her goals for being at home (walking in her garden and around the neighborhood, as she had done), she consented to return to the hospital for an evaluation and to see if the pain could be better managed. After being admitted, it was discovered that she no longer was in remission.

Another round of chemotherapy. No progress, except in controlling the pain, to a degree. Leukemia is a horribly painful disease. Throw what they did at it; it did not yield for long. It was time for us to go back home. We all were torn between not wanting to leave her and seeing our own families, homes, and jobs. We tried to be hopeful for a miracle. Our late sister’s words about something bad happening to Mom echoed in our collective memories.

On August 26, I called the hospital. Wayne answered, once again. Mom was totally paralyzed from the ribs, downward. She no longer could talk. She was in and out of consciousness. I asked Wayne to please hold the phone close to her ear so I could say goodbye. I told her I loved her and I would see her in Heaven. I asked her not to be afraid to go when the time was right. She died two days later.

Mom Lessons:  Life can be too short, so don’t waste too much time. Appreciate your family and forgive them for being less than angels. Take care of business – especially when it comes to your health. Don’t assume you know your own diagnosis. Don’t leave things unsaid, especially the I love yous and I’m sorries. Hug often. Try hard. Listen more. Don’t run from God, run to Him. He’s not Zeus with a lightning bolt; He’s the love-filled, perfect Father, yearning for His children. He will not give you up, but He allows you to make your own choices. You will hear Him. The question will be, how long will you ignore Him? To be broken on that Rock is to be healed from fear and doubt. He knows there is a time for everything under Heaven – birth and death. He is the Conqueror of Death and implores us to believe that and rest easy. Love is the reason He is the Alpha and the Omega. Love is the reason we are. We need to share that.

Late summer, 2000:  I’m going to Saginaw to visit Grandpa, who has been hospitalized for “change in mentation” (aka acting weird) for the previous several days. At 85, it was obvious that his mind was somewhat deteriorating. He felt frustrated by physical limitations in walking. He could not enjoy his favorite pastimes of golf and bowling. He was depressed. He had left his wife of 48 years for another woman about 10 years earlier. The family was fractured because of it. He had said cruel things to Grandma, in attempt to justify his sin. We had an excruciatingly difficult time forgiving this. I called him quite infrequently, prior to his illness. I could not get the image of my weeping grandmother out of my head whenever I spoke with him. I was beyond hurt or disappointed; I was hotly angry and I felt thoroughly justified in that. He had been my hero and he was old enough to know better. He chose one woman over four surviving children and 18 surviving grandchildren, let alone a faithful wife of all those years. He deeply, purposely injured every one of those hearts.

He was awake. He looked smaller and more frail than when I last had seen him, at Christmastime. He also looked exhausted. He tried to pull his leg back under the blankets and was having a bit of trouble. I lifted his leg and tucked it under. He said, “Thanks for coming, kid.” He told me about wanting to go home and said his back hurt, but it didn’t seem to help to be there, in the hospital. I told him about my kids and work. I asked him what it was that the doctors had told him. He said that he was just getting old. I wondered if that meant he could not remember. I had finished college in 1990 and had been working again in a medical office for a little over two years. I could see his obvious signs. He told me about some of the symptoms. I stayed and visited for several hours, and then went to stay at my aunt’s home, where Grandma also was now living. Of course, Grandma had lots of questions. I answered what I could, without lying but without being overly optimistic.

There would be several more weekend visits. At one time, they talked about sending him home. Then, the game plan changed. Grandpa never mentioned to us that the doctors had found leukemia two years earlier. He had a chronic, longer course than my mother’s acute, fast-acting type. He also suffered from diabetes for many years and its effects on the kidneys, which were in a state of chronic failure.

After four weeks, he was released from the hospital to a rehabilitation facility. They hoped to strengthen his legs and teach him how to better care for himself. There was some talk about nursing home care, afterward. We did not relay the nursing home part to Grandpa. We would see how long it took for the rehab. Just two years after marrying the ‘other woman’, they were divorced. Grandpa had reconciled with Grandma for about two months, and then the phone calls between him and his paramour began, once more. Grandma had the good sense to throw him out. The relationship with his second ex-wife continued, although they never remarried. Once again, those of us who visited him in the hospital had to deal with coming into contact with ‘that woman’. I had seen her on most occasions that I visited Grandpa, except for times when he was in his own apartment and she was away visiting family. I wanted, more than anything, to ask her to go away and give him back to us. She had been a partner in his absence in our lives and I was tired of dealing with yet another emotional bombshell. Instead, SHE asked ME to leave and go to the cafeteria so they could talk together. Grandpa wanted her to stick around. Selfishly speaking, it was another knife plunge into my granddaughter heart.

He would remain hospitalized for another two weeks after suffering a setback in the rehab facility. One of my aunts had gone home when I came on Friday evening. I was trying to get him to eat a thickened nutritional shake. I fed him about two bites, before he turned his head and swore at me. I chided him that all he had to say was, “No.” He slept and I sat. It was not long before I started to hear a wheezing sound that had not been present when I had arrived. I called in a nurse. X-rays showed that he had aspiration pneumonia. Back to the hospital. I knew enough about aspiration pneumonia to know the potential consequences. I felt I had just caused him to set out on the road to his irrevocable death. Still, I wonder if I hastened the inevitable. Not a good feeling.

At the end of that two weeks, it was readily apparent that he was about to, and, should be allowed to, die. He could no longer communicate, except to maybe raise his eyebrows or moan. He might turn his head toward whomever was speaking to him. When he last could speak, he had explained to one of his daughters that, “God had told him it was his time to die and he would die faster if he would not eat.” His physician asked us if we wanted them to insert a feeding tube. We asked if it would make him better. It would not. My aunt said she could not be responsible for starving her father to death. So arrangements were going to be made. Then, the results of CT, MRI scans, and blood work came back. The doctor decided on comfort measures, only. Grandpa had already said he had not wanted to be heroically resuscitated. Time after time, the doctors tried to improve his symptoms and quality of life. His systems were shutting down, one after another. I was so inconsolably sad, thinking that he stood on the brink of being lost for Eternity because of his sin. And then, Aunt Geri told me the story of how he had admitted to her that he had done a terrible thing to his family. He said he did not know how we would ever forgive him. That was a release for my hurt, my anger, and my fear.

When that weekend ended, and I had to return to home and work, I told my Grandpa that I loved him and I had loved him all of my life. I reminded him of a letter I had finally gotten around to writing and sending to both grandparents, about two weeks before his final weeks on Earth began. In those letters, I told them of their absolute importance in my life. Of the love I knew they had for me and of some special memories they had given to me. When I had first visited him in the hospital, he thanked me for that letter. He said that after reading it, he had to go into his bedroom and cry because it had touched him. He was glad that he meant something to me. Now, I thanked God that I had not delayed writing those letters any longer than I had. I had come too close to letting that opportunity slip away.

Five days later, on November 1, I was at work and thinking about making that trip in a couple more hours. And then, there was another phone call that broke my heart,  yet I knew he was released from his suffering.

Grandpa Lessons:  Recognize the hurtful things you have done to others, don’t ignore them and only justify yourself. Forgive, for you will want to be forgiven. Reconcile where you can.

Spring 2004: I was blessed to enjoy my relationship with Grandma for 44 years. During my overnight times spent with her, I could see her progressive failing. She would complain of being dizzy and stagger, especially when first getting up. She had suffered from some type of back pain for over 10 years. Most of her friends and her three sisters had died. She had buried two daughters, one just six months earlier. It seemed she was tired most of the time. Grandma had been an outgoing, friendly, party-loving person. She had become fearful and sometimes irritable. She seemed to experience visual and auditory hallucinations. Her aorta was severely narrowed and the brain was no longer receiving adequate oxygen. The last weekend I was able to spend with her, she was bedridden and seemed disconnected from her physical life. Finally, she was not in pain, thanks to Hospice. Her remaining two daughters cared for their mother during the day shift.

It was at this extremely stressful and agonizing time that God reached down to provide just a tiny, small miracle. Being in such an emotional state, I embarrassedly could not even recognize it until after her memorial service. Before leaving for that final visit, I was at home, following the workday. I wanted to go, but not really. I was spiritually, emotionally and mentally exhausted. Those emotions  barely were controlled. I packed my bag, but then just had to lie down for a few minutes before leaving. I prayed with all the might I could muster, which wasn’t much. The exhaustion was winning the fight. I knew it was getting late. Literally, I begged God to please have mercy on my beloved Grandma. I promised Him that I could see that it was time to let her go, but my largest dread was that she would not pass from this world without being fearful and anxious. Previously, she had shared with me that she was afraid to die because she didn’t think she ‘deserved’ to go to Heaven. I knew a priest had come to visit with her, but I wasn’t sure what Grandma was thinking. It was torturing me to think that she was clinging to the last thread of her life due to fright.

I arrived at Grandma’s apartment just about sundown. She was half sleeping and looked comfortable. Her Hospice aide was there with her – a smiling, cheerful person who quietly told me that Grandma had been trying to watch for me and stay awake. She called to Grandma and told her that her granddaughter had arrived. Grandma slowly opened her eyes and looked at me. She said, “Hi, Rob!” I greeted her, while I bent to give her a gentle kiss on her forehead. She gave me a big smile and her blue eyes actually had a tiny twinkle, again. I was thinking, “Thank God she seems comfortable.” I was going to ask how she was feeling, but I hesitated, just to observe her. Then came the statement that, with zero prompting on my part, literally would cause me to come wide awake from my slumber, some three weeks later:

“I’m not afraid at all!”

That was my last visit, as I had a date with the OR, which already had been rescheduled, once. She peacefully passed away one week after that surgery, with her daughters on the way back to her apartment on that June evening.

Grandma Lessons:  If you have a family, you are rich. No matter how badly someone injures you, you can find strength and encouragement from those loved ones. Life is made for laughter – corny jokes and all – and love. God will NEVER forget a prayer offered up in pure love – even if the one who prayed does. He still does miracles, today. We just have clouded eyes that see through that glass most dimly. Once in a while, we are privileged to notice Him moved to the point of directly and completely supporting us; even honoring us. He had not only honored the prayer torn from my bleeding heart, He always had planned to honor the final needs of His child, who also would be an aunt, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.

These few, yet precious, miracles I have witnessed and experienced have most deeply affected my heart. Even the curse of death can teach us about comfort and love; taking that curse and turning it on its head. God describes Himself as pure Love. Truly, that Love is stronger than death. He loves His children too much to leave them without comfort. This his how Death can have no sting and Grave can have no victory.

Right now, I have faith and again claim this Love for the time when I, too, must shed this mortality. My prayer is for me to remember His promises and for my family to see Him use me as another tiny miracle to convince and remind them of Love – mine and His – and their hearts to be forever encouraged. I cannot think of a higher calling.

Psalm 23

New King James Version (NKJV)

The Lord the Shepherd of His People

A Psalm of David.

23    The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He makes me to lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside the still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
All the days of my life;
And I will dwell[a] in the house of the Lord
Forever.

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~ by saginawrobin on September 6, 2013.

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