End-of-Life Lessons

· The stories of my father's life are snapshots of an eternal spirit ·

November 15, 2017

Even at the end of his life, my dad is teaching me. He is showing me that our spirits are more expansive than mortality can hold.

My dad is the sort of person who eschews purchased gifts, preferring handmade items or acts of service. More than once over the last few years, I have offered to write his life stories down. He liked this offer and thanked me, but didn’t want to actually sit with me and talk about anything.

The man who raised me is a do-er. He is happiest when he is moving, accomplishing, experiencing. Why would he want to be interviewed about the past when he was busy living his life? He brushed off my efforts to corner him.

Until two weeks ago, when he went on hospice.

He’s fought cancer for the last four years, during which time he scarcely slowed down. Hunting, fishing, traveling, singing in the ward choir, babysitting grandkids, home teaching, undertaking large-scale gardening projects, cutting down homegrown Christmas trees and doling them out to the relatives—he didn’t have boring days. He didn’t want to stop.

But cancer doesn’t ask if you’re ready to slow down. It has a way of refocusing your perspective in a way that little else can.

I arrived at my parents’ house while the hospice nurses were getting my dad set up with services. It was Halloween and my kindergartener wore a Power Rangers costume with fake padded muscles. My parents sat in their Barca loungers on either side of the couch, their physiques weakened. My son quietly padded around the room playing with toys before getting out art supplies and coloring at the kitchen counter.  The nurses made notes about medications, wishes for future care, listened to my dad’s heart, and shook our hands before leaving.

Once they were gone, I looked across the silence of the family room at my dad and asked, “Should we get started on your stories?”

He didn’t hesitate before answering, “Let’s do it.” This is when I knew the end was close.

It wasn’t until he couldn’t go, do, and thrive that he would consent to being still and reflecting on the past.

Since that day, I have filmed hours of my dad talking to me about his childhood Christmases, school lunches, the time he drove the family car down the highway at age ten–on the wrong side of the road, his high school folk band, memorable teachers, boy scout shenanigans, beloved dogs, early married years with my mom, medical school, his gastroenterology practice, church service in the Elders’ Quorum & the care center branch presidency & the jail, the added dimension of life with grandkids, and all his happiest places.

It’s easy to slip into the idea that we know everything about our parents, simply because they have been in our lives since day one. We can see them as utterly predictable—a known entity. But while we know them, we may not fully appreciate that they were multidimensional humans who lived entire lives before their children entered the world.

It’s been a sweet experience to listen to the tales bobbing to the surface, showing my father’s vulnerability, divine gifts, perspective, and wisdom.

We are each of us so much more than the one snapshot of life we are currently inhabiting.

We are simultaneously a curly-headed babe, a toddler who once got stuck on the looping cord of the window blinds, and a child running through the fields with Mike the dog and all his brothers.

Even when we are tired young parents or entering middle-age, part of us are still teens going to school dances and taking driving tests, or college students dreaming of the weekend, and graduation, and a paycheck.

The septuagenarian in the leather recliner is also the vibrant young doctor invited to speak to 10,000 at a Chicago medical conference. The grandfather of fourteen is the mustachioed dad of little girls, holding their hands as they run through the backyard sprinklers.

Even at the end of his life, my dad is teaching me. He is showing me that our spirits are more expansive than mortality can hold.

We are eternal beings, reaching for wholeness with God.

November 14, 2017


  1. Jennie

    November 15, 2017

    Cancer is a cruel thief. This snapshot of your dad and mortality is beautiful. I’m glad he is sharing is adventurous, full life. Love you!

  2. Barb

    November 15, 2017

    What an incredible gift of these stories and these moments together as he tells them to you. I’m so sorry that he is so ill and that his time on this earth is so short. Sending you lots of love.

  3. Michelle L.

    November 16, 2017

    This is beautiful. Your dad sounds like a gem.

  4. Jessica

    November 17, 2017

    This is beautiful and true. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Karen

    November 18, 2017

    I’m glad that you are having moments like this. I think it’s sacred to hear the legacies of older adults. It’s healing for them to do a life review and more meaningful if they have a witness to this act.

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